Mr. Speaker, my remarks on this bill will be brief.
In past parliaments I had the opportunity to comment on raises to our high court judges. What I said at that time was that, given the financial situation in Canada and the cuts that were being made all over the map, there should not be any increase, or at least not to the extent being proposed.
Today, I announce a change in tune. On the one hand, there are far more means available to us now for paying our judges. We have far more financial leeway than we did then.
I have listened carefully to the previous speakers, the Minister of Justice and certain members of the Canadian Alliance. I have to say that there comes a time when there must be some straight dealing in such a matter, as in any other. No more hiding one's head in the sand or talking out of both sides of one's mouth.
In this House we have already heard certain parties claiming they wanted no pensions, felt MPs were overpaid, did not want any limousines, did not want to live in the residence of the leader of the official opposition, and then a few years later here they are accepting these benefits, and rightly so. I feel they go with the territory, but there must be no doublespeak here.
The public wants to see us with the best judges, the most competent people. We want our MPs to be highly competent, to be available around the clock if possible. In the workings of government the best people are needed. People expect those who manage billions of dollars to be very good managers. They are entitled to demand that, but we cannot say that we want the best ones and not pay them.
I will give an example. I am digressing a bit, but this will illustrate my point of view on this issue. Let us take Hydro-Quebec. This has little to do with judges, I know, but I simply want to give an example. The president of Hydro-Quebec may earn $300,000. If he worked in the private sector, he would make two, three or even four times that salary.
Getting back to the issue, I know judges who earn a lot less than they did when they practised law. They agreed to become judges for all sorts of reasons. In some cases, it was because they had a very demanding practice as lawyers. Others, given their experience and expertise, wanted to give something back to society. These are not bad people who only think about themselves, on the contrary. We have very good judges in Canada. We have a system that works well. There is always room for improvement.
We must not antagonize them the way some parties are trying to do today. Rather, we must ask ourselves why we now have before us a bill to increase the salaries of higher court judges, of federally appointed judges. Let us not make this too complicated. On the contrary, we must make it simple, so that people will understand why we are faced with this issue.
On November 18, 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the whole issue of salaries for the judges of one province, namely Prince Edward Island. In this reference, the justices of the supreme court in their ruling established new constitutional requirements for setting the salaries of judges.
In a country justice has to start from some point. It happened that it was the justices of the supreme court, Canada's highest court, that ruled on this matter. Yes, at first glance, we might say there was a conflict of interest, since judges handed down a ruling concerning other judges. Who should do the judging? Who decides? Parliament?
We have an institution, the Supreme Court of Canada. We have the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I think that, since the charter was passed, since the Constitution was patriated, some of the powers of the House of Commons have been taken over by others, including the Canadian charter. In my opinion, parliamentarians have lost some of their jurisdiction under the umbrella of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Today, the Supreme Court of Canada is rendering decisions with all of its powers. It handed down a decision on November 18, 1997. I know, I was here in the House. This decision led the House of Commons to introduce an amendment to the Judges Act in order to establish an independent, and in my opinion, effective review board, the Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission, far more capable than I to consider the salaries judges might earn, whether they were at the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Court, a trial court or an appeal court, in Quebec or in the other provinces, or the judges of the higher courts of each of the provinces.
This commission looked at what went on in the private sector and where judges came from. It concluded that their salary should be increased by 26%, according to my notes here. I think 26% is a bit much, and this is where the minister has the discretion to justify not giving 26%, and this is what she has done today.
The increase is 11.2% which I do not consider unreasonable, instead of the 26.3% proposed by the commission.
The commission's mandate was to consider what would be the best remuneration for these judges, as well as to look into whether salaries and benefits for judges were adequate, with regard to three points: existing economic conditions in Canada, including the cost of living and the economic position of the federal government as a whole; the role of the financial security of judges in maintaining the independence of the judiciary; and the need to attract top notch candidates.
I mentioned that, when we do a comparison and look at where judges come from, we see that 73% are from the private sector, 11% are from lower courts and 16% are from government or other fields of legal practice and from universities.
When we look at the remuneration of 73% of appointees from the private sector, we see that the average pre-appointment salary of those from Quebec was $209,000 a year. We certainly cannot appoint people without the required training or specialization. In any event, as everyone knows, there are appointment criteria, such as years of practice and so forth.
As for benefits, a pension and the level of remuneration, this committee looked into the matter and decided to recommend a 26% increase.
Bill C-12 before us today sets the increase at 11.2%. Compared to earlier bills, I do not consider this unreasonable.
This is why the Bloc Quebecois will be supporting Bill C-12. I am sure the minister is paying careful attention and will come to the realization that the Bloc Quebecois supports the government when it presents bills that are reasonable and in line with the interests of the people of Quebec.
As much as I have an attentive ear for this bill, I would like to see the minister lend an equally attentive one to the demands from Quebec, including those relating to the young offender legislation. I cannot help commenting that I hope the minister will also listen to what Quebec is calling for in this connection.
As for Bill C-12, this is a bill we are going to support. I have two comments, however, that are a little more on the negative side, although not jeopardizing our support for Bill C-12.
The first relates to retroactivity. I realize that the commission's report was tabled on May 31, 2000, and we are now in March 2001. When this bill is passed, however, there will be nearly a year's retroactivity. I have trouble accepting that.
This being said, I understand the issue of retroactivity, and this is my second criticism is, but why did it take so long for the government to introduce this bill?
I read the commission's report, which is very well made and very well detailed. I did not take a whole year to read it. That report was tabled on May 31, 2000. What has the minister been doing since? She could have introduced a bill, long before the government called the election in October 2000, to follow up on the commission's report. Had the minister done so, we would not be stuck with retroactive payments of this magnitude.
My two negative comments, therefore, have to do with retroactivity and the government's slowness to act regarding an issue like this one. I do hope there were reasons other than an election call for the minister to postpone the introduction of this bill. I do hope the minister cares enough about the justice system to not have unduly waited until after the election to introduce a bill that provides an 11% increase for our judges.
These are my only two negative comments at this point. The Bloc Quebecois will definitely support the bill. We will keep track of it. We will follow all the debates on Bill C-12. We will certainly be there to ask questions to the witnesses appearing before the committee to express their views on this bill. If people submit briefs, I will take the time to read them.
That is about it at this stage. Bill C-12 will get the support of the Bloc Quebecois and it should get the support of all parliamentarians. I agree with the minister, and I will conclude on this note, that in Canada and in Quebec we have extremely qualified and competent judges. I have no problems backing the judges by supporting this bill, so that they can get fair compensation and remain totally independent from the political system.