Mr. Speaker, Bill C-17, an act to amend the Judges Act and certain other acts in relation to courts, is the bill before us. It is my pleasure to give the opposition response to this bill going to third reading.
The bill deals with judicial salaries and allowances, judicial annuities and other benefits. Bill C-17, to put it in its historical context, is the second government response to the 2003 Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission. The previous government had introduced Bill C-51 on the same subject. Historical context is very important because the people of Canada can see that action was undertaken by all governments with respect to this stagnant file.
As usual, Bill C-51, the predecessor legislation brought in under a Liberal government, was far more comprehensive and far more meaningful. It proposed a whole bunch of items that dealt with more than just the strict recommendations of the commission. There were a number of court related reforms, including the expansion of the unified family courts across this country.
In my own province of New Brunswick, there is a serious backlog of Family Court cases. Bill C-17 did not deal with this issue. I know the member for Tobique—Mactaquac would be interested to know that there are women waiting in all judicial districts of New Brunswick for dates for hearings before justices of the Family Court to deal with serious issues of child custody and the making of payments for support and maintenance. These are very serious matters. These matters touch everyone in the country. I thought it was important to underline that they hit home; they hit New Brunswick. The paucity of regulations in Bill C-17 as opposed to Bill C-51 just show how the government is not concerned with holistic or wholesome justice reforms, but just piecemeal ones.
Sadly, Bill C-51 did not proceed beyond first reading. It died on the order paper with the dissolution of the last Parliament.
In the reference case, the Supreme Court of Canada also concluded that government delays in responding to the reports of judicial compensation commissions can damage judges’ morale. It could even cast doubt on the independence of the judiciary.
Indeed, the independence of our judiciary is very much at stake in this bill as presented. Many times courts and commissions have established how critical the financial security of judges is, not only for maintaining judicial independence and impartiality, but also for attracting persons most suited by their experience and ability to be excellent candidates for the bench.
There seems to be a general attack on the judiciary presented by the government in its totality of justice bills. When we combine the effects of Bill C-17, which strikes at the heart of judicial independence, with the effects of Bill C-9 on conditional sentences, which is taking away the discretion of judges, and when we even combine it with the process involving the approval of Justice Rothstein to the Supreme Court of Canada, although it met with great success in that instance, it still puts the independence of the judiciary in question. It is as if the government has something in its craw about judges.
The bill completes the picture in striking at the heart of the independent findings of the commission. The report of the commission, and that was the McLennan commission, recommended that federally appointed judges receive a 10.8% salary increase effective April 1, 2004. As we know, Bill C-17 proposes an increase of 7.25% as of the same date, April 1, 2004, so where does the difference come from?
The commission reviewed Canada's economic situation. I was curious to note that the minister pretended as if the commission did not review the economic conditions prevailing in society. He would therefore lead us to infer that the commission irresponsibly would avoid looking at the economic conditions pertaining in this country and still recommend a salary increase.
Of course it looked at our economic conditions, and thanks to the great economic stewardship over the past decade or more of the member for LaSalle—Émard, this country has an enviable economic situation. For the minister to say that this was not considered sufficiently by the commission is in fact wrong. It is wrong in fact and it is wrong in opinion.
Canadians can see through this. They can see that this agenda of law and order also means that judges should do as the government feels they should. They should not be independent. They should be tethered to the purse of the government and its agenda with respect to justice issues.
Instead of simply establishing whether the government had sufficient funds to comply with the salary recommendation of the independent commission, the government believes that consideration also should be given to the other economic and social priorities of the government. It is curious to note that it is not the economic and social priorities of the community, but of the government, for on the same day that the Conservatives received news of a $13.2 billion surplus, they announced cuts of over $1 billion, hurting the most disadvantaged and helpless people in the community.
Does this mean that federal judges' salaries and, most important, their independence, is not a priority for the current government? Clearly Canadians are smart enough to draw that assumption from the government's actions. It is not important that judges be independent, the government says, so it will cut their salaries. It will also find judges whose beliefs the government believes in and put them on the court.
After cutting a billion dollars in social programs on the same day they received the news of the $13 billion-plus surplus, how can the Conservative government argue that it is refusing the conclusions and recommendations of the independent McLennan commission in this context? Is the minority government once again putting its own partisan agenda before the needs and the greater good of Canada? Are the Conservatives once again leaving Canadians behind in favour of their own political agenda?
I am not the only one questioning the government decision to come up with another number for the judges' salaries. The Canadian Superior Court Judges Association is also concerned by the rejection of the independent commission's salary recommendations.
I know that the member for Nepean—Carleton will be very interested in the accountability aspects of the bill. Having sat with that member for Nepean—Carleton in the hearings for Bill C-2 in the legislative committee last spring, I know he is keenly interested in the issues of accountability.
How accountable is it that the recommendation emanating from the independent commission, the independent judges salary commission--and members of the House will know that Bill C-2 is replete with the word independent--was rejected by the government? How accountable is that? I can only echo the concerns of the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association. It seems to me that we would have to go a long way in the history of this country to see political activism from our judiciary.
I echo those concerns. I am troubled by what seems to be the government picking up another salary figure and justifying it by criticizing the independent commission for not having accepted its arguments in the first place. It is as if the Conservatives should have picked Gwyn Morgan or some other Tory contributor to sit on the commission so they could have had the results they wanted. That, in their minds, would have closed the accountability loop.
Once again, this is a narrow approach that we have heard a lot about in recent years from our southern and formerly governing Republican neighbours, who say, “If you're not with us, you're against us”. The government seems to reject the independence of a commission. Those members in fact reject the good judgment of our judges and they are piercing a sword in the very muscle of judicial integrity and independence in this country.
Canada does not work like that. Canadians do not like that kind of play. They like fair play. Bill C-17 is not about being for or against the commission recommendations per se. It is about independence and accountability and the impartiality of our judges.
Judges interact with the citizens of Canada, both victims and criminals, with people in the judicial system. They must be above reproach from any political incursion. They must be independent. They must have integrity. Above all, they must have the respect of all Canadians.
How are we to respect a government that does not respect the fact that people in Canada want their judges to be above politics and not to be besmirched by any cheap political process, which this non-accountability act compliant provision provides?
It is all about doing what we can to maintain the highest standard of judicial independence. We cannot jeopardize judicial independence in our system, the system that is from the common law that pertains throughout many countries in the world, and we cannot do it, foremost, to promote a partisan agenda. This is not acceptable.
Having said that, I will say that this bill going to third reading has some good aspects, as Bill C-51 did, aspects that the Canadian people should know about.
On the issues with respect to northern removal, my friend, the member for Yukon, will be interested to know that northern removal as it is defined in the bill has a bit of a negative connotation. It sounds like people are moving from the north and is something like how the member for Fort McMurray—Athabasca wants Maritimers to move out west as part of a migration program from the government. It does not mean that at all.
What it really means is that justice will be done in the northern communities of this country. We often say from sea to sea to sea, and many Canadians who live in the south do not understand the concept of that third sea, but up near that third sea, as the member forYukon will know, serving as he does on the justice committee, delivering justice to the citizens of our great northern territories is often difficult. As such, the northern removal procedures set out in Bill C-51 and now carried through with Bill C-17 will do a great deal to improve the quality of justice in the northern parts of our community.
The supernumerary provisions, the rule of 80 provisions, will allow for a much more flexible system of judicial personnel appointments throughout many of our provinces. It will allow judges who have earned the combination of years of service and age to go to supernumerary status and be available essentially as part time judges to serve the provinces in which they reside.
This may do something to make up for the government's glaring error in not following the script of Bill C-51 in appointing a unified family court, particularly in provinces that do not have a unified family court such as New Brunswick, and we hope it does. On this side, we trust the chief justices of this province to manage their courts properly. We give them the respect they are due and hope that this bill aids them in that process.
I leave members with these thoughts about the application of this act and others with respect to judicial remuneration and judicial vacancies. It is to be hoped that we can move forward in the House in a non-partisan way, realizing that the judiciary should be above all aspects of partisanship. The judiciary, when appointed, should be on a pedestal. The judiciary should be above the concerns that often occur in this place and, above all, the judiciary should be respected by the Canadian public.
The Canadian public wants a judiciary that metes out justice and settles the disputes in our communities that happen from time to time in a way that is beyond reproach. It is to be hoped, with the beginning of new negotiations involving the same commission, that the next government, which I sincerely hope for the sake of all Canadians will not be a government made up of people from that side, will respect the principles of judicial independence and the integrity of our judges and adopt the recommendations when they come forward from the next quadrennial Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission.