Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak today about this important bill, which deals with compensation for judges.
When my Bloc Québécois colleagues and I studied and analyzed this bill, we realized that something was drastically wrong. Here are the reasons why the Bloc Québécois is not in favour of this bill.
This government bill increases judges' salaries by 7.25% effective April 1, 2004 and subsequently introduces legal indexing effective April 1 each year. We feel that this increase is unreasonable. My colleague did a very good job of comparing judges' and MPs' salaries.
In this House, under the former government, a mechanism for setting salaries was put in place, which avoided the emotional, irrational aspect of the issue. Now, though, the government is reverting to this sort of practice.
In my opinion, my colleague gave a very good explanation as to why we should keep a method that would ensure judges and MPs are treated equitably.
I would like to mention something else that I find completely unreasonable. We are living at a time when many people aged 55, 58 or 60 are losing their jobs. In fact we fought to have an older worker adjustment program put in place. The government did not offer these workers a 7% increase. All it did was decide not to implement a program to help them. I find that deplorable and unacceptable.
We cannot have a double standard in our society. In Montmagny, Whirlpool employees lost their jobs. Then, they qualified for severance pay and EI benefits. Today, at the age of 56, 57 or 58, these people are trying to find new jobs, but they are not able to get work. They are moving slowly toward welfare, with a gap of three, four or five years when they will have no income.
By our estimates, such a program would cost $75 million a year. No, it is out of the question. The federal government is refusing categorically to do this for workers.
Yet, in the same month, in the same parliamentary session, they introduce a bill to give judges a 7.5% raise. What is more, that raise is to be indexed every year. We know very well that judges and we members of Parliament are very well paid. This is excessive and totally unacceptable in our society.
This kind of decision on the part of the government angers the people, especially those members of society who are in dire straights and are fighting for justice but are not getting it.
Meanwhile, they want to give judges a 7% raise just like that. I think this is totally unfair and unacceptable.
A society like ours can be judged according to how it creates wealth. This is an important part of how we do things. We must also assess how that wealth is distributed.
There are people who have been contributing to creating wealth for years. They labour in factories and give their lives to the companies they work for. That is how they support their families. When the market forces step in and take away their income, we do nothing to compensate them. Then we turn around and give a 7% raise to judges. That is unreasonable. I think even the judges would agree. In my opinion, this bill is obscene.
This is why we think it is so important to vote against this bill and reject it. The government can still take a stand, make some adjustments and find a more rational, less emotional way to determine salaries that does not break the rules.
It is very surprising to see this Conservative government, which said it wanted to do things differently from the Liberals, behave just like the last Liberal Prime Minister.
Some people in this House criticized the former Liberal prime minister, the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard. They said he did not play by the rules and that he changed the situation as a purely emotional reaction to what was happening in society,
The Conservatives are now doing the same thing. They want to grant an increase that I find excessive. By constantly modifying the recommendations made by the commission that determines judges' salaries, the Liberals and the Conservatives are making the salary setting process unnecessarily political.
We wanted to move away from this way of doing things and establish a consistent method. The Conservatives are now abandoning this consistent method, which the Liberals had also begun manipulating and changing. One might have expected this government to act differently, but to no avail. Indeed, the Conservative government decided to pursue this somewhat hypocritical Liberal tradition, by still refusing to link the salaries of parliamentarians and the salaries of judges.
Because it is crucial that we establish an independent salary setting mechanism for parliamentarians and judges, the Bloc Québécois is calling upon the government to reintroduce a legislative obligation to link the salaries of parliamentarians to the salaries of judges. This seemed to us to be the best way to prevent an irrational situation.
A fixed mechanism allowed the Prime Minister, for example—the most important elected member of this House, the representative of the entire population—to receive a salary equal to that of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and so on. Following the pyramid model, ministers received a salary that corresponded appropriately to that of judges at the various levels.
The Conservative government rejected this practice and is going back to a system that is irrational and unacceptable.
Because the indexing of the salaries of judges and parliamentarians has to be reasonable, the Bloc Québécois is asking that the salaries of judges be based on the same indexing mechanism as the salaries of parliamentarians, so that their salaries increase each year in step with those of unionized employees of big corporations in the private sector, that is, approximately 2.4% for this year.
This is where the inequity comes in. It could be argued that parliamentarians and judges should have roughly the same compensation as the heads of large companies in the private sector. However, some would say that, since our salaries are already high, we could be more reasonable. Let us suppose that this principle, for one, is accepted.
Furthermore, in our society, some individuals do not benefit from indexation and live under an employment insurance system that, for years, has penalized people who want to work— seasonal workers, among others, who go through periods of five, six, eight or ten weeks without any income. These are the individuals who have been made to fight the deficit.
We know that the recipients of employment insurance benefits, contributors to the employment insurance plan—employers and employees—have made the largest contribution to the reduction of the deficit in Canada. These are the people from whom $50 billion dollars in contributions was taken and diverted to repay the national debt, to pay down the deficit. Yet they themselves were never reimbursed. In recent months and past years, no one has talked about a 7% indexation of employment insurance benefits.
No one has spoken about indexation in the case of those who have to make it through the waiting period, as I explained at the beginning of my speech, or for older workers. They do not even have a program.
There are some people who, after having received employment insurance benefits for one year at the most, find themselves without income overnight after being laid off by a company that was not unionized or that was but that did not provide income guarantees or pension benefits. They do not negotiate a 7% salary increase. Even if their salary was increased by 7%, 7% of nothing is nothing.
There is no equity here and it is very unfortunate that the Conservative government has decided to go ahead with this legislation rather than using a more scientific means of setting salaries, one not based on emotion and one that cannot be manipulated to provide a sudden increase to attract the support of these groups.
In the past, in fact, the Conservatives tended to be somewhat contemptuous of the judiciary, and the way they are doing things in this bill reflects the same attitude.
Right now, the Bloc Québécois is speaking for the public as a whole, for people who earn their living, who pay their taxes, whose wage increases are the result of tough bargaining, whether individually or collectively, and who will learn today that the Conservative government has decided to give judges a 7% increase as of April 1, 2004, plus an indexed increase on April 1 every year. Those people are really going to be wondering why there is such a double standard in our society.
I gave the example of older workers and EI benefits for seasonal workers. We might say the same thing about young people who pay into the employment insurance scheme. No one has told them that their benefits would be going up. In fact, the number of hours they have to work in order to qualify has been increased, so they are still being discriminated against by the law. No one decided to reduce the number of hours they were being asked to work before qualifying. And yet if there is anyone in our society whom we should be giving a chance in life, it is those young people.
The position of the Conservative government is not really defensible and does not reflect what society would like to see. I hope that with our presentation we will be able to persuade the government that this bill should be reworked in terms of how it applies, how it works in practice. If we do not succeed with this bill, at least, even if it does not publicly admit it today, it could perhaps do something so that the salary determination method will be more rational in future. It could revisit the principle that was proposed, an increase that uses the comparison between judges and parliamentarians. It would also have to take into account average wage increases in society, to make the method credible, instead of producing the kind of result we are seeing today. This creates a discrepancy between what judges are paid and what parliamentarians are paid, and what is being forgotten is that in our society people are getting nothing like the increases being offered to judges.
I say all this with the greatest respect for the quality of our judges. We are not here to determine whether the judges do their work well or poorly. That decision is of another order. The way in which the government has decided to act on compensation does not appear to us to be in accordance with the will of the public and we hope that the government will reconsider its decision, and that in future it will adopt a much more acceptable method.
In the proposal that was developed by all of the parties represented in the House of Commons, and which seemed reasonable, it was anticipated that the judicial compensation and benefits commission was required by law to propose a reasonable salary, taking into account the state of the economy in Canada, the financial situation of the government, the role of the financial security of judges in preserving judicial independence—we agree—and the need to recruit the best candidates for the judiciary.
Under that method, the Prime Minister would earn the same salary as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; ministers would earn three-quarters of that salary; members would receive an annual sessional allowance of 50% of the annual salary of the Chief Justice of Canada, and so forth. The whole mechanism was spelled out and it produced justified and defensible results that could very well be explained to the public.
The solution was simple and fair. It made it possible to preserve the independence of the judiciary and provided that members of parliament were not asked to set their own salaries. That worked very well until 2004, when the judicial compensation and benefits commission proposed an excessive increase. In a fit of panic, the Liberal government and the Conservative opposition decided to play politics by separating the salaries of members and judges instead of analyzing the situation with a cool head. That is the cause of the whole problem.
If that method had continued to be applied over several years, it would have been clear that this was a totally appropriate mechanism, and salary adjustments could have been proposed regularly, as the commission suggested.
The Conservative government announced that it would not behave like the Liberals. Then it decided to introduce a bill of the same kind, in the same spirit of panic, as the one introduced by the Liberals. The result is what we have before us.
As things stand now, the Prime Minister would earn $3,000 less than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the disparity would likely increase over the years. I think it would be interesting in our democracy to see the government accord some minimal recognition to the role played by elected people and parliamentarians, as we have suggested in one method that would be interesting to apply. But that way of doing things is nowhere to be found in the current bill. For this reason, the Bloc Québécois is opposing it.
I will conclude by saying that judges have an important role to play in our society, as we all know. Their compensation should reflect that fact, but those in political power should also show respect for the judiciary, and the method of appointing and compensating judges should be more transparent. The Bloc Québécois believes that the current bill is inadequate from this standpoint. We will therefore be voting against it.
In conclusion, I will repeat the main reasons for our opposition. There is a 7.25% salary increase retroactive to April 1, 2004 and indexing thereafter. The government broke with the old practice of a specific method for associating the salaries of judges with those of elected officials, even though it was the right thing to do. They broke with this procedure and that is one of the reasons why we think that this bill should not pass. They are unduly politicizing the salary setting process. The government adds insult to injury in view of all the people who do not have the minimum protection they deserve. It is unacceptable to me to see judges getting so much more while other people are living in trying circumstances. That is why I and the Bloc Québécois will vote against this bill at third reading.