Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be here today to debate Bill C-17, an act to amend the Judges Act and certain other Acts in relation to courts.
Before I begin my remarks, I will note that I have just come from a meeting with a delegation from Mongolia. I certainly commend them for being here. I think we have a lot in common with that country. I am delighted that we were able to meet with the Mongolians, who have made the effort to come to Parliament today.
I would like to briefly comment on the remarks made by the Bloc member who just spoke. I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that a few hours ago I actually made a recommendation for how eloquent a speaker he was. That was certainly upheld by his speech today. I think all parliamentarians should take note of how eloquently he spoke. One of the keys in making an eloquent speech is to make only one or two points. He did that admirably. It was a dynamic speech.
The bad news is that I disagree with the two points the member made.
First, I have always had difficulty talking about the salaries of members of Parliament. I have never thought that salaries should decided by elected officials at any level.
Second, comparing judges and members of Parliament is like comparing apples and oranges. A special independent commission was set up to do the research on a particular occupational group. It did the research and came up with a recommendation that cannot necessarily be applied to other groups because there may be different histories, conditions and situations. It is a more complex situation.
Some members have suggested that it is a delicate topic any time we talk about the salaries of judges in a debate. I am not going to talk about their salaries. It would be a contradiction of the whole point that I am trying to make in this debate, and that is the independence of the legislative branch and the government.
I am not going to comment on whether judges are making too much or not enough, whether the original recommendation was enough, or whether the government's cut is too much. To do so would defeat the whole purpose, which is that we should not have great influence over the judiciary so that it can be independent.
Probably I will vote for Bill C-17, and certainly the Liberals will be supporting it, but only under extreme duress, which I will explain. My point is around the whole argument of the independence of the judiciary.
First, though, I want to reiterate a technical point that I made at the previous reading of the bill. It is related to my jurisdiction as the northern critic for the three northern territories. In the bill, the chief justices in the provinces are so named, but under subsections 22(1), 22(2) and 22(2.1), the bill refers to those who are the chief justices in the territories as senior judges. This is an archaic definition.
There have been no objections in the House to harmonizing these terms. The three territorial governments have suggested that the titles be harmonized. The federal minister of justice at the time and the judicial council also have recommended that this be modernized and updated so that the senior judges in the territories would also be called chief justices. As we see in the bill, they have the same responsibilities and receive the same remuneration. They should also receive the same title. I hope that technicality in the bill can be changed.
I would like to thank the justice minister. After discussions, the Minister of Justice has taken this suggestion to the Prime Minister, who apparently has to make that decision. Hopefully he will make this change so that we can get this technical improvement people are asking for and we can change the title of senior judge to chief justice so they are all the same.
As the representative for the north, I am totally in favour of the discussions related to the northern allowance and the added costs of doing business and living in the north that are covered in this bill.
I would like to comment first of all about some of the witnesses. I think the first group of witnesses we had at committee was the commission that determined these salaries. I must say that, just like some of us, they were apoplectic when I talked to them personally about this decision that had been made. They were not apoplectic that their decision had been changed, but that the process had been politicized.
They had given their report to the previous government, which had agreed with the report and was going to maintain that independence of the judiciary with no serious reason to question it. All of a sudden, a new government came in and changed the recommendations. What had changed from one day to the next?
The members of the committee thought that was an exceptional politicization of the process and exactly what was not supposed to occur. They were trying to create the independence of this commission, so it would not have political or legislative interference in the judiciary.
The reason that was given at the time was the cost, that the government could not influence its agenda the way it wanted to. Really, except for a few members on the Conservative side of the House, I do not think anyone could really understand or accept that a minor amount of $3,000 in the scope of the entire Canadian budget would stop a government from implementing its agenda, in particular at a time when there is a $13 billion surplus. It is really ludicrous to even consider that argument.
On top of that, the government has more cash than it ever expected to have. It cut the Kelowna accord which is $5 billion extra. The day care agreements that we had with the provinces would be $10 billion or $15 billion more. The government also let a number of excellent greenhouse gas programs expire, such as EnerGuide, so there was all sorts of extra cash. If we were to go with that rationale, the government would probably have too much cash and should be paying the judges more. It just does not wash.
I would like to present more evidence and more opinions to the same effect.
The way the system has been set up to maintain an independence of the judiciary begins with this independent commission. That commission had a member from the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association and a member from the government. They then chose the chair. This commission makes recommendations regarding benefits for judges. Unless there are serious reasons, and it is very specifically laid out as to the definition of those reasons, Parliament would approve those and make the final decision. However, as I was just suggesting, the government did not give any serious defensible rationale under the guidelines and description that the Supreme Court of Canada gave.
When we were decrying the very sad and senseless cutting of the Law Reform Commission, the justice minister suggested there were a number of other bodies that could give advice to government. One of them that was suggested was the Canadian Bar Association, which, by the way, said at that time that it was shocked that the government would suggest that, because it did not have the resources and time to do all the good work the Law Commission was doing.
Nevertheless, if the government wants to use the Canadian Bar Association instead of the Law Reform Commission, let me just quote what the Canadian Bar Association submitted to the committee on this bill, which backs up what I was just saying.
In its submission, it said:
The CBA is concerned that the government response fails to pay adequate heed to the constitutional imperative to depoliticize the process of setting judicial salaries and benefits, in accordance with the principles set out by the Supreme Court of Canada.
So, it is not just coming from me or from this side of the House and some of the other speakers we have heard. It is coming from the Canadian Bar Association, who the minister himself said was an excellent body to provide advice to the government.
It went on:
More particularly, the government response fails to provide adequate reasons, and evidence in support of those reasons, to deviate from the salary recommendations in the 2003 commission report.
In fact, it went on further. The whole basis of the point that I am trying to make today reflects on the independence of the judiciary. It is, as the Canadian Bar Association says: “An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of a democratic society”.
I am sure all parliamentarians agree with that basic foundation of our constitutional democracy, of law and order acceptance in Canada, and that there is a total separation of the judiciary and the legislative process. How could we have powerful legislators telling judges or influencing judges in their decisions: who they convicted, what they did, and the types of sentences? Would that be fair? Would that be equal justice before all? Of course not. I am sure every parliamentarian would agree with that.
The independence of the judiciary is referenced in the Constitution and it is just a cornerstone principle. As the Canadian Bar Association went on to say: “An independent judiciary is 'the lifeblood of constitutionalism in democratic societies'”.
So, it is this principle that I am basing my arguments on today. I do not think anyone would suggest that if they were getting paid by someone, someone influencing their salary, that it would not have an influence on their decisions. Certainly, with regard to all the employers I have had over my life that were paying me, I took some deference to their opinions and views. That is exactly why an independent commission was set up that had to have serious reasons for altering its recommendations.
I want to go on to present further comments on the report and those reasons as identified by the Canadian Bar Association.
The CBA believes that the government response is so generalized and so lacking in particulars that it fails to give a meaningful effort to the 2003 commission report.
The government submitted two reasons. The second reason that it provided, a technical reason, and I give it credit, was actually accurate. It was accepted by the bar commission as a potential minor reason for some modification of the report. But it had this as the second reason.
Its first reason, which was given much more prominence in the view of the Canadian Bar Association in its decision, had no waiting specified in its decision, so it would be hard for observers to make an evaluation to that effect. However, it seems to give to the knowledgeable observers far more credibility to the first rationale which was not found to be acceptable and was not found to fall within the Supreme Court guidelines, and was not acceptable as a reason.
So, under those circumstances, the Canadian Bar Association just said that this is not acceptable, this does not maintain the independence of the judiciary and so, these changes are not appropriate. In fact, it suggested the best outcome for the judicial independence would be for Bill C-17 to be amended without delay to compare with the recommendations of the 2003 commission report.
I guess in the long run that would be best. However, we live in the real world, the day-to-day world. We also have to take into account other ramifications.
Judges must now wait for three years out of a four year cycle. It is about to start next year again and this decision is holding up the whole process.
Certainly, I personally do not mind doing it on a matter of principle, but on the other hand, through these technicalities, I do not want to hold up the process. The judges need to get on with their lives. The process can start again next year and we hope these considerations will be kept in mind.
I hope that in the future this will be a good warning to those people involved in the process to remember the great Canadian principle, that of modern constitutional democracies, which believe in the rule of law and that the independence of the legislature and the judiciary should be maintained. That is a very important principle of our society.
In conclusion, I have one last reference to a report from the Canadian Bar Association to substantiate that. It says that if we carry on like this with the government bill as is, it further risks damaging the judicial independence and public support for the administration of justice.
We certainly do not want that to happen. As previous speakers have said, we have one of the most honoured justice systems in the world. People from around the world are looking to our retired judges to lead worldwide initiatives. There is great credibility and part of that credibility is based on the independence of the judiciary to do its best. I hope I have made that point strongly today and that it will be thought out carefully in the future when this process comes back to us in the not too distant future.