Mr. Speaker, Bill C-17 poses a significant problem for the government and for Parliament. It challenges one of our fundamental institutions. It challenges the independence of our judiciary, which is one of the significant pillars of our democracy.
We need to put the bill in the context of where our judiciary stands, both nationally and internationally. Its reputation certainly has no superiors and very few peers.
I have had the opportunity to travel to other countries, mostly within the Commonwealth. It is interesting how often I hear extremely favourable comments about our judiciary, how it has, for instance, reached out to any number of countries which are trying to develop their judges and their judicial system. Our judges have helped them to do that.
We have a model that has no superiors, which I can see in the whole world, and very few peers. However, it is a model that is under attack. Our judges are under attack. We have seen that in a number of ways from the government and from some commentators in the media. When we put it in that context, we are going after a very fundamental thing for our judges, and that is their compensation package.
Back in 1999, we developed, I believe in good faith with our judges, under the direction of the Supreme Court, a methodology as to how to deal fairly and equitably with judicial compensation. What we did was build in a system that was very akin to binding arbitration in the labour context. Binding arbitration basically says that both parties submit their positions to a neutral, in this case, commission of three members and allow it to decide what is fair and equitable to both parties. That is what we have done.
When the report came down from the McLennan commission, there were very specific recommendations, as was required, as to what the compensation should be. It was based on reasons that are set out in the commission's report, which the government has seen. It analyzed the status of our judiciary. Some of the tests were what they would be paid if they were practising in private practice, the ability of the government to meet the recommended compensation levels, the status of the judiciary in the country and, to some degree, internationally and a number of other points. It was a reasoned, detailed report. It met all the requirements of the statutory framework.
What happened? It was reported to the House. The former government sat on it, in effect. It came through with a bill in the spring of 2005, just a little over a year ago, but the government did nothing to press it forward. Then we had a change in government.
The new government has a fundamental attitude that is very disrespectful of our judges. Quite frankly, ignorance pervades the Conservative Party with regard to our judiciary in terms of understanding its status, the importance of judicial independence and the importance of maintaining our judiciary at the high calibre, as we have seen over the last good number of decades, at least since the second world war, if not before.
What did the Conservatives do? Shortly after coming to government, they looked at the report again and determined that there was no way those elite judges, sitting in the Supreme Court, or in our Superior Courts or in our Federal Court, were deserving of the compensation recommended by the independent commission.
The Conservatives proceeded to slash the compensation through Bill C-27. The government had the hypocrisy to challenge the reasons on two basis. One was on the government's ability to pay, which is an absolute joke. For the periods of time that we are talking about, the Government of Canada had surpluses of $10 billion and $12 billion. The new government is now trying to convince the Canadian people, and perhaps at some point they will have to convince a judge, that this is a reasonable argument. I think the facts belie the credibility underlying that argument.
The second attack on the commission's report was that it had not properly taken into account what judges were being paid both in smaller communities and in our larger cities. Again, if the government had analyzed the report to any degree of accuracy, it would have realized that the commission had looked very specifically at the issues of compensation at a lower level for those lawyers practising in smaller communities versus those in larger communities. The commission analyzed it, came to its conclusions and made its recommendations, all of which was its responsibility, all of which was within the criteria and its mandate.
Looking for excuses to justify their disrespect for our judiciary, the Conservative tried to latch on to what are very specious arguments. It comes down to this. If the government does not begin to appreciate the significance of the independence of our judiciary, our judiciary will be undermined. If, in some cases very personal attacks on some of the judges continue, our model will be threatened and will be undermined.
With all the passion I can muster, I urge the government to take this opportunity to grasp this. There is an opportunity for the government to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of our judiciary. There is an opportunity for the government to convince our judiciary that it respects the principle of its independence and that it is a fundamental pillar of democracy in any country.
Last week I was with the Minister of Public Safety in Moscow. One of the reasons I went with him was to deal with issues around terrorism. While I was there, I had the opportunity to meet with their judiciary and with some of the human rights groups. It was stark the difference between that country and ours in terms of the protection and security that an independent judiciary can provide.
At one point in one of the meetings I had with the human rights groups, I asked for their opinions on independent judiciaries. The five or six leaders who were present laughed at me. They laughed at the suggestion of an independent judiciary because they knew it did not exist in that country.
While I was preparing my speech for this evening, I could not help but think of them. I wondered if we would be faced with this at some point in the near future. Are our judges going to be treated as jokes? Unless the government changes its attitude toward them, we are clearly facing this as a risk.