Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak on the third reading of Bill C-17, a piece of legislation that at least purports to incorporate into law, as is required by legislation, the report of an independent commission with regard to salaries and other compensation for our judiciary at the federal level, all the way from the Supreme Court of Canada to our superior courts across the country, as well as our federal court system. There are approximately 1,100 of those judges across the country.
Historically this has been a very difficult problem for legislatures, at both the federal and the provincial level. The problem we have is because of the structure of our Constitution, which recognizes the independence of our judiciary and, quite frankly, the importance of an independent judiciary to the democracy of Canada. We never have been able to satisfactorily deal with how we compensate those judges and maintain their independence from the legislative and administrative branches of government.
Approximately 10 years ago, a system was developed as a result of several court decisions, and one since then, that required the legislative branch, this House and government, to establish an independent commission, a commission that would be composed of an independent neutral chair, one person delegated from the government and one from the judiciary. That commission was to investigate the compensation paid to judges right across the country at the federal level and make recommendations in the form of a report.
That report then came back, first to the government, and to the House as well, to be dealt with in committee and encompassed in legislation. That is why the bill is before the House at this point. What happened to some significant degree, and I think shamefully, is that the process either has been ignored by the government in its proper sense or has been hijacked to some degree for ideological reasons by the government. I suppose we could use interchangeable terms here.
The report that came back recommended certain compensation levels, straight salary levels, while a number of issues around pensions and fringe benefits, if I can put it in that vernacular, were to be dealt with by way of these recommendations for the government to implement.
One of the travesties of what has gone on here is that this report is almost four years old now. The previous Liberal government, as was so common with that government, dithered on it and did not deal with it other than preparing some legislation to accept it. That government then basically just let it sit, ignoring its constitutional responsibilities to process the commission's recommendations in a reasonable timeframe. That had been part of one of the court decisions, that whatever methodology was deployed it had to be used in a reasonable timeframe. The past Liberal government did not do that.
Then we had the Conservative government. Of course, I think the country generally knows its attitude toward the judiciary. One of the first things it did, in the form of this legislation encompassed in Bill C-17, was to slash the compensation, both in salary and in some of the benefits, by over 25%. To go through the bill's history, it then went to the justice committee. Attempts were made there by me on behalf of the NDP to reinstate the commission's recommendations.
I want to go directly to the intellectual dishonestly of the government with regard to this. The courts, in a series of cases, have said the commission's recommendations are to be accepted and can only be deviated from if set criteria are met. What came forward from the government was a couple of arguments, no more than that. The government tried to characterize them as sound reasons, but they were arguments that were specious and in fact intellectually dishonest.
One of the reasons the government gave for slashing the compensation recommendation was that it had the right to take into account the state of financial circumstances at the federal level when making a determination. One has to appreciate how ridiculous that was, because in the three and a half years when this report was sitting there and not being dealt with, either by the Liberal government or by the Conservative government, there were surpluses in this country that amounted to in excess of $20 billion over that period of time.
This was not money that was going to be spent by either the Liberal or Conservative governments on other programs, on other necessities in the country. It was simply set back and used to pay down the debt. That is what it was used for. The government tried to contrive an argument that somehow it had the right to take into account financial circumstances, but when one looks at the facts that of course was meaningless.
The other argument the government made was that when the commission did its assessment it did not properly take into account incomes of lawyers, because that is one of the tests that we use to set the compensation we pay our judges. The argument was that it did not take into account a broad enough scope. That simply was not true.
In fact, members of the commission appeared before the justice committee and pointed out that they made an assessment of income levels within the legal community right across the country, in large cities, large law firms, small communities, small law firms and individual practitioners of law. They said they had done all that, that they had done their job and done it properly and had reached a consensus among the three of them, the independent chair, the government appointee and the judiciary appointee. They had reached a consensus that this was the proper amount to be dealing with. So the second argument, the second so-called reason, was basically destroyed by the facts of how the commission had conducted its work.
As I said, the NDP, in my person, attempted to bring it back. It was voted down. First there was a decision that the government would not grant the royal prerogative, even though when the minister was in front of the committee he was equivocal as to whether he would accept the recommendation to increase the amount of compensation to what it was originally in the commission's recommendations.
It was ruled out. There has been no indication since then that this will change, and in fact, just the opposite. Very clearly, if those amendments were brought forward to increase the amount to its original level as recommended by the commission, the government would invoke the royal prerogative and would not be prepared to accept those changes.
That is the bill we now have in front of us at third reading for its upcoming final vote in the House.
I have to say very clearly with regard to this process that it was not honoured. It was just the opposite. In terms of the timelines that were applied, it is a disgrace for both governments, the Liberals and the Conservatives. Specifically, the Conservative government's approach or attempt to explain away its reasons for reducing the amount of compensation for judges is, as I said earlier, specious. It is intellectually dishonest. Quite frankly, it is a disgrace to the importance and the significance of having an independent judiciary, because this goes right to the heart of it.
If someone is going to go after judges' compensation in this fashion, both ignoring the process and then trying to undermine it with specious arguments, it really is very difficult not to see that the independence of the judiciary is being attacked by the government.
This is a pattern that we have seen from the government, both as a political party before it became government this last year and since it has been in power. I will go back to that to give other examples of how I have seen the judiciary at the federal level come under attack from that political party.
Before I do that, I want to make one final point with regard to the process. Given that it has taken us so long, we are now at a stage where the government has to appoint a new commission because the cycle for judicial compensation is actually in vogue at this point. The government has not done that but I assume it will be doing it shortly.
However, it begs the question: Are we going to go through the same process, assuming, and one would hope not, that the government will still be in power when the recommendation comes back from the commission? Will the government again ignore an independent commission doing good work, the solid processing of information, to determine what is appropriate compensation for our judiciary?
Given what I have seen go on in this process, I have no reason to believe that the government will not undermine the process if it does not get the recommendation that it believes is appropriate rather than what the independent commission believes is appropriate.
I believe this is part of a pattern. I will just go through a number of points where I see the Conservative Party, which is now government, attacking our judiciary from a number of different vantage points.
When the debate was going on over same sex marriage, the Leader of the Conservative Party, now the Prime Minister, made wild accusations of our judiciary being biased, that they were small “l” liberal appointments appointed by large “L” Liberal governments to specifically enhance the program of rights for the gay and lesbian community in this country. It was a wild accusation, it was offensive to the independence of our judiciary and it was wrong.
One of the leading decisions that came out of the Court of Appeal in Ontario, a three member court, was made by Justice McMurtry, a Conservative cabinet minister in the provincial Government of Ontario at one time, who was appointed to the bench by the Mulroney Conservative government. The court interpreted the Constitution and the Charter of Rights specifically based on equality rights. The Conservative Party did not want to hear that and so the Leader of the Conservative Party made a wild accusation that, ultimately, was factually incorrect.
Near the end of the election campaign, we again heard him say that he saw the judiciary as being one of his opponents if he were elected. His government and his party see the judiciary, not as part of the constitutional structure of this country and not as part of the fundamental support for democracy in this country, but as an ideological opponent to the government and its political party.
Shortly after the election, we had the member for Saskatoon—Wanuskewin attacking and putting words into the mouth of the Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice alleging she had made certain statements. The member subsequently had to apologize because they were statements that he had made up. What it showed was the attitude of the Conservative Party, now the government, toward the judiciary. It has total disrespect and it is willing to fabricate accusations against the judiciary, all of it based on a strong, ideological bent that it sees the Supreme Court, our superior courts and our Federal Courts as not being supportive.
We hear a number of members from that party constantly attacking the judiciary for making laws, not interpreting them, which is their role and the role they in fact play.
Having practised law in our courts for 27 years before I was appointed here, our judges are better than any judges in the world. I do not hesitate to say that I am proud to be part of a legal community that produces those judges. They are not perfect but they are better than any other judicial branch in the world. It is recognized around the world. If one were to go to Australia, the United States, Britain or any number of other Commonwealth countries with a similar legal structure, that is what we would hear. The decisions our judges make are used repeatedly in other countries because of the respect they have for our judiciaries, but not our government, the Conservative Party, which constantly attacks our judiciary for making laws.
They are not making laws. Their role is to interpret the Constitution and the Charter of Rights, which is what they do and they do it extremely well.
As we saw, once the Conservative Party got into power it cut the court challenges program. The methodology in that is to undermine the role that our judges play. It means that we will have a reduction in the quality and, I might even say, the quantity of cases that go in front of the court that challenge both federal and provincial statutes, practices and policies. If these cases do get there, there will likely to be a lesser quality of argument because the funding for the court challenges program has been cut by the government in a very petty, vindictive way and with absolutely no rationale for it.
We hear the President of the Treasury Board, when he stands in this House, constantly, in his bombastic fashion, attacking the court challenges program, which is really an attack on the judiciary.
The government then cut the Law Commission, which played a role of support for this House, for the committees in this House and for the legal infrastructure, if I can put it that way. It had a very important role in the research that it does and the reports that it produces. It allowed for dialogue to go on, not only within the legal community but also within the political community. It helped foster that dialogue as to where we should be going with our legal system. A great program has been cut and, I think, cut illegally.
The government did not even have the gumption to bring forth a bill, which is what I believe they must do to terminate the Law Commission. It did not do that because it knew that all three of the opposition parties would have voted it down. This is a very clear indication of the government's attitude toward the judiciary and the judicial system. It sees itself as being an opponent of that system and doing whatever it can to undermine it in a variety of ways.
Now we have the appointments of the judges. The government is at a level of hypocrisy that is frightening, as is the minister who, on the justice committee, was very strong about us cleaning up the judicial appointment process and trying depoliticize it as much as possible. We have models at the provincial level where that has been done.
The Conservatives have been in power now for a number of months. They could have done that but we have heard nothing. What we are seeing is that a good third of the appointments that have been made so far at the federal level are appointments of people who have very close ties to the Conservative Party. They may very well be good judges. The minister thinks he may have done even more than those, and it would not surprise me if he has. Maybe we have not identified all of them.
The point is that the Conservatives take a cynical approach toward the judiciary by seeing it as an opponent. They need to take care of the judiciary which means they need to undermine the judges and do whatever they can to lessen their authority.
Ultimately, it brings into disrepute the government and it does attack the very essence of the constitutional structure in this country, the important leg of that, of course, being the independent judiciary.