Mr. Speaker, this morning we are considering Bill C-37, an act to amend the Judges Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
I think the first question we should ask is why, today, we are at this point. We are at third reading of a bill concerning judges' salaries, Bill C-37. I think I should first provide a bit of background first and take a look at the constitutional context of the whole matter.
On September 18, 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada in a reference on the pay of provincial court judges in Prince Edward Island, determined the constitutional requirements the legislator must abide by in establishing judges' pay. The court stipulated that the independence of the court system, as protected by the Constitution, involved the establishment of an independent and objective commission with sway over decisions on judges' salaries.
The provincial and federal attorneys general asked the supreme court to stay the effects of the decision to enable them to meet the constitutional requirements.
The supreme court acted on this request in its decision. On February 10, the court decided to stay the effect of its decision from September 18, 1997 until September 18, 1998.
The justices of the supreme court sent us, the lawmakers, the following message “Change the law to comply with our recent decision, and we will give you time to do it, that is, one year, until September 18, 1998”.
Since time flies—here we are at the end of the session—the House must consider this legislation and its amendments and act on them.
The government amendments we have before us, however, are not necessarily what I would have liked to see. As it stands, the supreme court ruling calls for the creation of an independent commission, nothing more.
This is clear from reading the ruling. It calls for the creation of an independent commission, period. The government party is not right in saying that it is merely giving effect to a supreme court ruling with its salary increases. Naturally, I will come back to the government's salary increases for judges during my speech.
The supreme court ruling is not to be interpreted as a requirement to increase judges' salaries. To respect the constitutional imperatives imposed by the court in the reference, parliament is not obliged to go along with the Scott commission recommendation to increase judges' salaries. At the very outside, parliament should undertake to set up an independent commission that can influence, but not dictate, judges' salaries. Here again, it is very important to look at the supreme court ruling, to understand it and to compare it to the bill before us.
The Minister of Justice was not obliged—and I choose my words deliberately—to include an 8.2% salary increase over two years for federal judges in order to meet the constitutional requirements set down by the supreme court. Clause 5 of the bill we are now studying, Bill C-37, which contains the salary increase provision, threatens the whole bill, in my view. This is unfortunate because the bill contains some very good elements, such as the creation of permanent judicial compensation and benefits commissions.
The Bloc Quebecois considers that the government is far exceeding the conditions set by the supreme court in proposing a salary increase of 4.1% per year for two years. The government used a false claim of unconstitutionality to justify a salary increase that was not required by the supreme court in the reference on judges' salaries.
While only one clause in the bill being considered poses a problem, we cannot support the bill. The Bloc Quebecois is entitled to demand rigour from the government in the drafting of its bills and the avoidance of unjustified discrepancies.
It is immediately clear from the bill that the government has gone much farther than the justices of the supreme court asked it to. If we add up all the increases proposed in the Scott report and those authorized by government for the statutory increases provided under the Judges Act, passage of the bill will give the judges an increase of 12.4%.
As it appears that the government has been preparing this one for a long long time, the bill is likely to be passed intact.
While clause 5 of the bill refers to a salary increase of 4.1% a year for two years, the federal judges will be entitled to an increase of over 12% retroactive to April 1, 1997, if the bill is passed by the House of Commons.
If we add indexing of 2.1% on April 1, 1997 and 2.08% on April 1, 1998 to the 8.02% provided by the bill, the total is an increase of exactly 12.38% that will be given the judges. An increase of 12.8% just calculating the increases provided under the law and Bill C-37. It is simple math. Just add 4.1 twice, plus 2.08, plus 2.1%. We must add up all these increases to understand that, retroactively, this makes a total increase of 12.38%.
Any accountant and reasonable person who looks into the matter will tell you that the combined effect of these individual increases is an overall increase of more than 12.38% because increases are all one over another. Factor in retroactivity and we have been told by accountants that it is actually closer to 13%. That does not make sense.
As a the matter of fact, under Bill C-37, if passed, a superior court judge will earn approximately $175,800 a year. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada will see his salary increase from an attractive $208,200 to a lovely $225,700. I do not think these can be considered middle class incomes. Yet, the government is granting judges a salary increase of approximately 13%.
Let me digress for a moment. At present, it is clear that the government across the way is not even able to come to an agreement with his own employees. Our pay clerks at the House of Commons did not get even a small salary increase, only crumbs off the table of the rich. They have to fight with their employer, and the pay office. They have to fight with the government, the Board of Internal Economy, just to get what they are owed, to maintain salaries similar to those paid elsewhere in government. They cannot get a small increase and adequate recognition for the work they do. The government over there will be giving about $25,000 in pay raises to senior justices, and $20,000 to the rest.
These judges perform very useful work, I am sure, but I also believe that certain government employees do extremely necessary work, including the pay clerks, who are currently involved in a dispute with the government.
Returning to the judges' raises in particular in Bill C-37, the Bloc Quebecois cannot honestly understand how the government can commit to a pay raise of 12.4% for federal judges, when we know that the attack on the deficit, and the subsequent budget surplus, are being achieved on the backs of the least well off. The incomes of those most in need are being cut, and those with high incomes are being given increases.
The government is not capable of competing with the lucrative private job market. That is one of the arguments that has been raised. We are told that, if we want to have competent judges, we have to pay them properly. I agree, but I think that, at some point, there has to be a limit.
David Scott, the head of the commission that looked into judges' benefits in 1995, told the justice committee that the government ought to raise the pay of federal judges if it hoped to attract the best candidates from the private sector.
At this time, the lists of candidates for judgeships are full to overflowing. The Judicial Council will attest to the fact that there is no shortage of applicants. Lots of people are queuing up to get judicial appointments.
If, however, the government has set itself the objective of going after the top-flight lawyers in the major law firms, the 4.1% increase yearly for two years will not make any difference to that.
When a lawyer emeritus decides to make the leap to a judgeship, he or she does so for the professional prestige, not just for the money. Despite the salary freeze of recent years, the federal courts have excellent magistrates at this time. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate and thank them for the excellent work they do in all the courts in Canada, particularly the provincial courts in Quebec, the superior court and the court of appeal. I congratulate them on their excellent work.
They do not do that excellent work because of the pay. They do excellent work because they have the qualifications and qualities required, they have good judgment, they are professionals, and I congratulate them. Again, it is not because we are giving them a 4.1% raise over two years that they will do an even greater job. Judges will continue to work the way they have been since they were appointed to the bench.
Are we to understand that the government decided to opt for a strategy similar to that used by major professional sports teams, which are prepared to raise the stakes in order to attract the best athletes? If so, the government should find a new approach, because it is not in a financial position to compete with private law firms. We all know that some brilliant lawyers in some big private firms make a lot more than $200,000 per year.
However, this does not necessarily mean that a lawyer who earns $150,000 in a private firm is not as good as one who makes $250,000 or $300,000. This is not how lawyers are rated. But the government seems to think so. I do not agree.
I know judges who used to work for legal aid, a government service. I know some who used to be crown attorneys and who are now excellent judges. These people did not earn $250,000 or $300,000 per year, yet they are very good judges because they believe in their profession and in the justice system. They are good, but they were not paid like brilliant lawyers in big law firms around the country, including in Montreal and in other major centres. Yet, they do a great job.
I heard all sorts of things about the review of Bill C-37. At the risk of offending some people, I say that anyone who works for his or her country—for Quebec or for Canada—must be considered a public servant. The salary of that person is paid by Canadians through their taxes. Senior public servants, secretaries of state, ministers, the Prime Minister and others are all paid with taxpayers' money, which means they are at the service of the public and the state. Judges—and this may upset some people—are also at the service of the state, since it is the people who pay the judges' salaries through their taxes.
We must keep that in mind when we give a raise or when we pay a salary to someone who works for the state.
Of all the people working for the government, in Canada, specifically the professionals, including the Prime Minister, the ministers and all the members of this House, the judges are the best paid.
In considering the salary of judges, we have to think what an individual might earn in a liberal profession of similar scope. The Bloc Quebecois agrees with all those who say that judges perform very important functions and should be held in esteem in our society because of their position.
The Bloc Quebecois is not starting a war against the judges. On the contrary, it is simply raising the choice the government has made, which, in our opinion, is not the right one. So the judges are the best paid in the professional category in Canada.
In an article on May 13, the Toronto Star informed us that our judges earn an average of $126,000 a year. That is more than medical specialists and lawyers earn. Medical specialists earn about $123,000 and lawyers in private practice, an average of $81,000.
Mr. Speaker, I have a question for you. Should judges earn more than medical specialists? Which is more important in society?
I think the question is an easy one to answer or that, at least, it raises other questions. Is this the way we should look at it? Maybe not. Maybe we should not be comparing the salaries of judges and doctors.
The point I want to make, however, is that a medical specialist is every bit as important to society as a good judge. Why give an astronomical increase to judges and not to medical specialists? At some point, we have to stop and think. Is the increase too high? I think the government did not give it enough thought.
Another thing that bothers me a little bit about this bill is that they are trying to conceal the fact that it is retroactive. It is retroactive to April 1997. Why should there be retroactive compensation for the salary freeze of recent years? That is the reason we are being given. It is not retroactive, but it goes back to April 1, 1997 because judges' salaries have been frozen in recent years. Either it is retroactive, or it is not. If the government wants to compensate them for a freeze, they should be compensated for what they lost, and not more. In response to the minister, therefore, indexing would have been enough. But the government is giving more.
The 1995 Scott commission's report on judges' salaries and benefits proposed an 8% increase as compensation for the ground they lost in recent years. The Minister of Justice probably based the 8.2% increase mentioned in clause 8 of Bill C-37 on this figure.
As even certain Liberals on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights have said during hearings, this catch-up policy is unacceptable. When salaries are frozen, it is because the public purse cannot keep pace with the consumer price index.
A salary freeze does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with a promise of an increase when the situation has improved. We are barely out of a budgetary crisis—a look at Canada's deficit makes it plain we are not yet out of the woods—and one of the ways this was done was by making the most disadvantaged members of society foot the bill, and the government is preparing to spend money retroactively by increasing judges' salaries and indexing them as well.
Public service salaries also dropped during the period when indexing was frozen. Members also had their salaries frozen for five years.
When the freeze was lifted, if one could call it that, the 1% or 2% indexation was restored, but there was never any question of raising salaries to compensate for the money lost because of the freeze. Why should we give judges special treatment? Whey should they be treated differently than other government professionals or salaried workers?
We also know that the least well off are the ones who have had to bear the brunt of the fight against the deficit, as I have already pointed out.
Now. the government is making those same people pay for the judges' salary increases. Those in greatest need get cuts, and those with what I consider respectable salaries are given an increase that works out to around 13%, when all the raises are combined.
Time is flying, but I would like to quickly remind people of the cuts to social transfers. The government over there cut billions in transfer payments. The eligibility criteria for employment insurance, formerly unemployment insurance, have been tightened up. In fact, judging by the effect on the public, it ought to be called poverty insurance. The government will be taking billions from the pockets of workers.
Now that the Minister of Finance has a bit of money to play around with, he wants to give it to the most well-off in salary increases. I think that both an individual and a collective contribution are required here. The Minister of Finance is digging into the employment insurance fund to solve his budget problems, and everybody knows it. I think the Bloc Quebecois has done excellent work on this. It has alerted the public to this extremely important matter.
I have already referred to transfer payments. It must be kept in mind that the amount the federal government transfers for health has been cut back terribly. This week we heard the minister boasting that the cut was only $42 billion, rather than $48 billion. Forty-some billion is a really big amount. I am not saying he was right or wrong. I am simply saying that he made these cuts on the backs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, and on the backs of the sick; so he should not turn around and give the money he cut to the wealthiest.
The public remembers that the same people always pay. We have to conclude, in the case of Bill C-37, that the rich are not treated like the poor and disadvantaged.
The government wants us to agree and approve a bill awarding an increase like this. The government is accusing us of failing to honour the Supreme Court decision. That is not true. We want to comply with it. We are simply saying that the government is going well beyond the Supreme Court decision, because there was no mention of what sort of increase we should give the judges in that decision. The Supreme Court said “Set up an independent commission”. We could simply have limited the scope of the bill to establishing the commission sought by the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.
In closing, judges too, in my opinion, should make budget sacrifices. Ask the man in the street. I am sure you will find that they agree with the Bloc Quebecois that judges, ministers, Prime Ministers and the like should contribute equally to the effort to eliminate the budget deficit.
Those opposite often criticize what goes on in the Quebec National Assembly.
Mr. Bouchard and his government could probably teach the members across the way something about making budgetary sacrifices, because that is what they have done in Quebec City, the premier included. Judges also did their part. The government reduced its payroll by 6%.
Why would it be any different here? If the federal government is taking in too much in taxes and no longer knows what to do with all the money, it could perhaps turn it over to the provinces so that they could use it as they saw fit, for their own objectives, to reduce their own deficits and ultimately lower taxes.
Since the federal government is providing increasingly fewer services to the public, if it no longer knows what to do with the money, it should get out of a lot of areas and leave the taxes for provincial governments, including the Government of Quebec.
I believe that all members of our society must work collectively to put our fiscal house back in order, and federal judges are no exception. An increase in the salary of federal judges during a period of cutbacks would, in our view, further undermine the public's confidence in the judiciary.
In closing, I wish to cite Mr. Justice Lamer himself, whose opinion can be found in the reference on judges' remuneration. It will help the members opposite in their reflections. In the supreme court ruling, Judge Lamer said the following:
I want to emphasize that the guarantee of a minimum acceptable level of judicial remuneration is not a device to shield the courts from the effects of deficit reduction. Nothing would be more damaging to the reputation of the judiciary and the administration of justice than a perception that judges were not shouldering their share of the burden in difficult economic times.
It could not be stated more clearly. Even the supreme court judges, in their ruling, told the Parliament of Canada that it should not give them salary increases because it would be prejudicial to the public's perception of them.
I sincerely believe that an increase that is close to 18% and that is retroactive to April 1, 1997 is ill-advised, and that it will not achieve the specific goal of increasing the public's confidence in the judiciary.