Mr. Speaker, let me tell you a little about the past. In all parliaments, whether the federal Parliament here or the Parliament in Quebec City, where I was for a while, or other parliaments in other countries, setting the salaries of members of Parliament is always an extremely difficult and thankless task for one simple reason. Members of Parliament are generally well paid and even very well paid, and the citizens who pay our salaries will always find some reason for saying that salaries are too high—and sometimes they are right.
It is really a thankless job that we have, and this is why, in the last Parliament, after some long sessions, the Liberal government decided to suggest a method of setting members' salaries that was completely beyond the control of Parliament. The judges' category is a category that parliaments have used to give themselves independent methods of setting salaries. Judges' salaries are set on the basis of recommendations based on studies done by a committee of experts that studies the economic situation and labour markets in general and makes a proposal.
Principles of independence are all very well, but returning every year or two to Parliament to ask the members to determine whether they should have a 1%, 2%, 3% or 5% salary increase puts the onus on the very people who daily see people in their ridings facing terrible problems, losing their jobs, plants closing, and people victimized by the cuts to the employment insurance plan decreed by the government.
It is an inhuman task. There has never been unanimity on this, except in the former Parliament when all the parties agreed that Parliament's independent mechanism for judges could also set our salaries.
We were happy to work with the government, several of whose members are still on the benches opposite, and several members of the current cabinet were in cabinet at that time. They took the decision then and made some recommendations. They did the work that they had to do. They assumed their responsibilities. They got our support, and the system worked.
But what has happened that we find ourselves here now, in this House, forced to go through this debate again when we thought that we were forever finished with it? This is what happened. The committee that determines judges' salaries did its work. It made recommendations. These recommendations leaked out and in the newspaper the headline, which lost the focus on judges, read, “MPs give themselves 10% salary increase.”
No MP in this House, certainly not on this side of the House, anyway, was informed of this percentage. No one had any idea that the committee had made such a wild recommendation. We were just as speechless, surprised and even indignant as the general public, to see such a high percentage. Still, we took the responsibility. We said to ourselves, “The committee did its work badly.”
In such circumstances, when one is responsible and reasonable, when one is not a demagogue and not trying to score political points with such difficult and delicate matters, one must simply say the committee did its work badly. If the percentage is too high, the government has the option and even the duty to receive the recommendation and determine whether it is correct or too high. It can make changes to the recommendation.
What did the government do? What did the Prime Minister do? Expectations were that the Prime Minister would announce, like a reasonable man, “Look, the recommendation you have seen in the papers is clearly exaggerated. The government will shoulder its responsibilities. We will have a critical look at this percentage, reduce it, bring it into more reasonable proportion, or we may ask the committee members to use different parameters. If they have used the wrong parameters, perhaps they can work with the ones that Treasury Board could provide, which are used to determine salary figures for public servants based on private industry, increases in wealth, on this and that, to finally arrive at some increase in salary.”
But no, that is not what the Prime Minister did. The Prime Minister ran to the nearest microphone to say that he would not accept his salary increase. He meant it when he said it. He dissociated himself from all the other partners in this House, and that is worse. He said that he, personally, would not accept his salary.
Everyone started laughing. The Prime Minister has tens of millions of dollars. There are a few members in this House, unfortunately I am not one of them, who could fulfill their duties here on a voluntary basis and continue to give money here and there without any problem. Good for them. However, when one fulfills the duties of a prime minister, one does not have the right to use himself as a standard and try to look better than the others. He said he would not collect his salary.
When everyone started laughing, the Prime Minister came back to the microphone and said that this did not make sense, that he was going to change it and cut the members' salary increase. Everyone was in agreement with the Prime Minister. However, what we expected from a responsible Prime Minister was that he would tell us that the committee would have to go back to the drawing board and make an acceptable increase proposal to us, for the judges and for us members of Parliament.
Instead, he took the microphone and said that 10% would be much too costly to Canadians. We agree. We do not want a 10% or 11% salary increase, but we do not want either to undo a whole process, just because the Prime Minister does not have the courage to do his job and to do it correctly. But that is another story.
I was one of those who helped devise that process. During my career, I had many opportunities to work on the salary of parliamentarians, both in Quebec City and here in Ottawa. We defined some principles. Let me begin with the first one. We felt that the public could not possibly disagree with the following principle, namely that the Prime Minister of Canada should have a salary equivalent—$1 more, I think—to that of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, whom he appoints. The latter has much greater job security than the Prime Minister of Canada does, particularly this one. Indeed, his job is constantly on the line. He might not last very long here. So we felt that the Prime Minister should earn the same salary as the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Is there anyone here who thinks this does not make sense? Yet, today the government just betrayed that principle.
Second principle. It is said that a minister does not work as hard as a Prime Minister, has fewer responsibilities and should earn three-quarters of the Prime Minister's salary. This only makes good sense and seems perfectly acceptable. No one would do a double take over this.
The Prime Minister earns the same salary as the chief justice, ministers earn 75% of the Prime Minister's salary and members earn 50% of the Prime Minister's salary. Seems reasonable. I do not think anyone listening to us would be shocked by this. We have established defined amounts.
If the Prime Minister had the courage to respect this, we would not be here today. How do you judge a man who acts on political opportunism? He wants to look good to the public, he wants people to like him, he wants to give the impression that he is fair and modest, and that he cares about people.
The Prime Minister had numerous opportunities to show he cared about people, whether in the area of employment insurance, health care, the fiscal imbalance or seniors. The Prime Minister had many opportunities to demonstrate his humanity. But no, he has decided to take his turn at members' salaries, the one subject, unfortunately, that lends itself most readily to demagogy.
Still, we would follow the Prime Minister in this respect if the government said today that it had decided to clean house and implement a separate system for judges and parliamentarians. We would look at this, and maybe we could work with it. In fact, this is what we are proposing. We want to look at new mechanisms or a mechanism with new parameters.
The same Prime Minister who said, when the results were released, that this was far too high for Canadians, changed his tune in cabinet and gave government approval—again requiring a bill—with respect to judges.
So, I would like to know how Canadians, who do not have the means to give MPs 10% more, a fact that we corroborate, suddenly are able to do this when it is for judges. I need an explanation of how a Prime Minister, who has looked into the situation of his fellow citizens, can reach the conclusion that they cannot afford to give 300 MPs a 10% raise, but they can do it for hundreds and hundreds of judges. I just do not get it.
This is irresponsible. The public needs to know that their Prime Minister makes decisions on a day by day basis. There is no other reason the Prime Minister could use to justify his government drafting a bill that, on the one hand, cuts the pay increase for MPs while, on the other, hand making the decision to give this kind of increase to judges, who are not exactly in dire straits.
The consequences of such an approach are scandalous. Are people aware that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who up to now has earned as much as the Prime Minister of Canada, and furthermore is appointed by the Prime Minister, and has job security, will now earn $26,000 more per year than the Prime Minister? It is unbelievable. People listening who do not earn even $15,000 per year must understand that this government has decided to give a $26,000 annual increase to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The government is acting shamelessly.
The position of the Bloc Québécois is quite simple. We cannot agree to, nor do we want any salary increase for parliamentarians. Even the increase proposed by government seems, at this point, inappropriate.
We do want, however, the Prime Minister to deal with this matter in the following way. A parliamentary committee must be created that will set slightly more serious parameters for the judges compensation review committee. There is no need to deal with compensation for members and judges separately. The only thing we need to do is ask the committee to reconsider the issue using new parameters. The ridiculous recommendations that are often announced year after year are creating a huge gap between judges and the rest of Canadian society in terms of wealth.
We have seen it, the minister talked about 1.3%, 1.5% and 1.7% per year. Do members know that judges, in addition to the 11%, get a cost of living adjustment? In four years, this represents a 15% or 16% increase in salary. Who, in Canada, gets a 15% or 16% salary increase in a four-year period? Few people do. Almost no one gets that.
How can the government justify such a thing?
We are disappointed and deeply offended by the attitude of the Prime Minister, who, for political expediency, and because of his inability to assume his responsibilities as Prime Minister, has attempted to wreck an entire system without even asking himself if that system was not the best one. The Prime Minister did not hesitate to trample, to destroy the arguments in respect of a system that the previous government, of which several ministers were members, had put in place and implemented to finally resolve this issue.
The Prime Minister does not respect anything, except perhaps this sort of paranoia about the popularity he wishes he had. Moreover, he does not understand that he will not make headway with demagogic behaviour like this. If he wants to be popular with the public, they should set aside the issue of salaries for MPs and tackle unemployment. We have to examine the employment insurance program before the recess.
We have to deal with the million of children living in poverty in this country, who need help and whom the government should help. But no, we are not dealing with poor children, or the unemployed, or the elderly, to whom the government owes billions of dollars. Instead, we are dealing with the salaries of MPs. That is indecent. While this matter could easily have been dealt with in committee, had the government so decided, the government, is increasing the salaries of judges and, to a lesser extent, that of MPs, but not dealing with anything else. If the Prime Minister wants to be popular, he is going to have to learn to set real priorities.
In closing, I would like my colleagues in the opposition to ask themselves: if we agree today to an increase in MPs' salaries are we not acting in complicity with the government? Are we not agreeing to this bad strategy of the Prime Minister by letting him have his way and saying, “You have more reasonable figures. Let us look no further. Let us change the system”?
In my opinion, all opposition members should stick together and tell the Prime Minister that we do not appreciate his way of doing things; that we refuse to destroy a system that can work and that is based on reasonable parameters, provided we give directions to those who work within it. There is no need to rebuild the whole system; we simply have to be reasonable and assume our responsibilities. However, whenever something comes up, the Prime Minister starts acting like a ship at sea that is going in all directions because of the wind. Back home, we refer to this as a ship with a lot of sail, but no rudder. It is disturbing to have a Prime Minister who has a lot of sail, but no rudder. This is what we have before us.
Therefore, I am asking my fellow opposition members to say no to this bill. Let us force the government to put this issue back into the hands of hon. members through a parliamentary committee. Let us ask them to look at the process. Let us ask the committee to set adequate parameters to give reasonable salary increases to members, judges, public servants and all the citizens who deal with the government and whose salaries are paid by the government. This is what we should do. This is what we are asking, and this is why we will oppose this bill. We will oppose it and we urge the government to assume its responsibilities by adopting the system that we are proposing, because it is much more effective, logical, sensible, and respectful of the public, and it is not based on a demagogic approach.