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Quebec premier says moving forward on politicians' $30K pay bump requires "courage"

SHERBROOKE, Que. — Courage was necessary to move forward on raising the salaries of provincial politicians by $30,000, Quebec Premier François Legault said Saturday as unions demonstrated outside his party's convention to demand a raise, too.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to reporters questions at a news conference before question period at the legislature in Quebec City, Tuesday, May 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

SHERBROOKE, Que. — Courage was necessary to move forward on raising the salaries of provincial politicians by $30,000, Quebec Premier François Legault said Saturday as unions demonstrated outside his party's convention to demand a raise, too.

"It's a file you have to have the courage to deal with to attract all people (to politics), not just people who have made money before," Legault said as the Coalition Avenir Québec's party convention got underway in Sherbrooke, Que., about 150 kilometres east of Montreal.

About 850 members attended the convention to discuss party policy and to debate 32 proposals, many having to do with energy files like building more hydroelectric dams.

But the pay bump was among the distractions as 1,000 members of four public sector unions protested outside the convention, dissatisfied with the progress of negotiations as the collective agreements of about 600,000 provincial employees expired on March 31.

Quebec has made an offer that works out to be a 13 per cent pay increase over five years, a lump sum of $1,000 and an additional 2.5 per cent increase for "government priorities."

The unions are seeking a $100 per week increase or the consumer price index plus two per cent in year one,whichever is more advantageous, followed by a three and four per cent increase in subsequent years. The unions said they want to make the CPI figure permanent to avoid the loss of purchasing power of government workers against inflation.

"They are going to give themselves $582 in increase per week and they tell us that the $100 is too much,” lamented François Enault, first vice-president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN).

Legault's government tabled a bill this week that would raise the base pay for elected officials from $101,561 to $131,766, making it the highest among Canadian provincial politicians. Alberta legislature members currently have the highest base salary among their provincial peers — $120,936 a year.

Legault told reporters Saturday the debate on the salaries of elected members of the national assembly had dragged on for too long and it was necessary to have the courage to increase their base pay.

Legault defended not bringing up the issue during the 2022 election campaign. 

"It's always a delicate file," Legault said.

The governing party's caucus is unanimous in supporting the considerable increase, which was recommended by a committee earlier this year to attract strong candidates. The Liberal official Opposition said it supports the bill, while Québec solidaire opposes it and the Parti Québécois has expressed its discomfort.

Most of the 125 elected members of the legislature already earn substantially more than base salary because of other duties, but everyone will see an increase including the premier and cabinet ministers. For example, cabinet ministers will see their pay rise to $230,591 from $177,732.

Legault will also face a confidence vote at the convention on Sunday, his first since 2014 when he received 97.2 per cent support. 

Despite turmoil since the government's decision to backtrack on a promise to allow  cars in a proposed tunnel linking Quebec City with its south shore, party members say reneging on a major election promise toward voters in the capital region shouldn't be an issue for the confidence vote.

Also Saturday, Quebec's justice minister continued to defend the appointment of a close friend as a provincial court judge and insisted the process was respected.

Simon Jolin-Barrette was under fire over the appointment of Charles-Olivier Gosselin to a Quebec court posting on May 4, denying there was any appearance of conflict of interest in the case.

Jolin-Barrette says he was aware the appointment would cause a stir, but admitted he didn't warn the premier's office or the cabinet. He said an independent committee analyzes the applications then submits a shortlist to the minister, who makes the final call before the cabinet ratifies the appointment.

Gosselin is a legal aid lawyer in Quebec City who has practised since 2011, and was one of the lawyers who represented convicted Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette.

“This is my friend. I am minister of justice, I made a decision for which I take responsibility," Jolin-Barrette said. "The person was selected according to his skills."

Liberal justice critic André Albert Morin criticized Jolin-Barrette for acting in non-transparent manner.

"Although the process for appointing judges in Quebec is very rigorous, it is the minister himself who, ultimately, makes recommendations to the cabinet," Morin said. "He should always be transparent and reveal to his colleagues if candidates are known to him and withdraw from the final selection session."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2023.

— with files from Caroline Plante in Sherbrooke, Que.

Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press

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