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Context, Tory MP Russ Hiebert's shifty campaign for Bill C-377, and me

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Russ Hiebert

There has always been a troubling stream of disingenuousness that runs through the Harper Government's campaign for Bill C-377, supposedly a bill to require unions to be more transparent to their members but widely perceived as having a more sinister agenda.

For the moment, this poorly drafted and likely unconstitutional private member's bill is stuck in Parliamentary limbo -- the Senate, to almost everyone's astonishment, having done its job as a chamber of sober second thought and returned the bill to the House of Commons with significant amendments designed to correct some of its gravest flaws.

Still, given the anger from the Prime Minister's Office -- seemingly re-radicalized after the departure of pragmatic Chief of Staff Nigel Wright in the aftermath of the Duffygate affair -- it seems likely C-377 will be back again soon enough.

This disturbing pattern has been evident in the sanctimonious commentary by Russ Hiebert, the Member of Parliament for the B.C. riding South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, who is the private member in question behind the bill.

Hiebert just loves unions, it would seem from what he has to say, it's just that he thinks they ought to be more transparent. This is a laudable enough goal, although it ignores the fact that with rare exceptions unions are among the most transparent of Canadian institutions, far more transparent indeed than the opaque government in which Hiebert plays a mysterious role or the secretive thinks tanks and Astroturf groups that support its goals.

Such duplicity has also been evident in the strategy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office to pretend that C-377 wasn't a government bill, when in fact it has been just that from the get-go -- as the anger emanating from the PMO amply demonstrated when its attempt to whip the bill through the Senate came a-cropper thanks in part to the efforts of a group of 16 rebellious Conservative Senators led by Hugh Segal.

Indeed, floating the idea as a private member's bill was also a rather disingenuous strategy -- as it allowed the Harper Ministry to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny of a bill for which experts of almost all political stripes, including many Conservatives knowledgeable in the field, agreed there was no need.

Among those Conservatives who opposed the bill was St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber, who not long after resigned from the government caucus over the way his own transparency bill had been treated by his caucus-mates. Rathgeber, it should be noted, is a lawyer whose background includes employment law, so he presumably knew whereof he spoke.

Moreover, it turns out that even the public opinion poll that Hiebert claimed showed public support for the bill was, in the words of former Conservative pollster Allan Gregg, "horrendously biased," designed to get the public to respond the way the people who commissioned the poll desired. The poll is now the subject of a disciplinary review by the organization that sets polling standards, the Vancouver Sun reports.

But despite all this history, I had enough faith in the reasonableness of Harper's caucus that I simply assumed they'd leave me, of all people, out of their campaign of spin. Too small a fry to think about, if nothing else.

This may account for my failure to notice, back in February 2012, that Hiebert had taken my name in vain while apparently trying to suggest I harboured secret sympathies for his cause in his speech to the House of Commons introducing his bill!

I'm not making this up. Hiebert has often implied that nameless labour leaders and plain old union members like me support his efforts -- although despite the efforts of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, he apparently has never said just who these folks might be.

But one of those Press Galley sluggos, toiling for a national newspaper chain, recently dropped me a line and wondered if it could be me that Hiebert had in mind.

After all, my interlocutor observed, according to Hansard, the permanent record of the House of Commons, Hiebert had this to say when he introduced his bill: "The communications director of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, David Climenhaga, said the following of unions…"

He went on to quote me, accurately enough, as saying: "Many publish their complete audited financial results, in spite of the fact this is not required by law, and distribute them to 100 per cent of their membership. Any member of the public, of course, may access that information. Such complete openness seems to do them no harm."

"Mr. Climenhaga suggests that the same level of transparency be extended to think tanks and private corporations that benefit from tax breaks and subsidies," he added, without much further reflection on that point.

Well, I'm always pleased to be mentioned in Hansard, especially if my name is spelled correctly, never mind that I had long before ceased to be employed by AUPE by the time Hiebert got around to quoting me out of context.

But let's just be clear, though, that for him even to suggest, if that's the word, that I somehow supported his bill, is what Mark Twain would have called a stretcher -- the substance proving its elasticity in this particular instance being the truth.

My point, as was clear to most readers of the column and presumably to Hiebert as well, is that there's absolutely nothing wrong with transparency -- but that the process the bill proposes, supposedly to achieve that end, in fact has another purpose entirely. To wit: to make it impossible for unions to effectively represent their members, cost their members money and tie them up in red tape.

So it is said here, for the record, that this effort by Hiebert to mislead his dozing listeners in the House was yet another example in a troubling pattern of casual deceptiveness surrounding this piece of legislation, of which the 16 Conservative Senators and their Liberal and Independent colleagues were rightly suspicious.

I have said in the past that "I was quoted out of context" most often means "I wish I hadn't said that."

In this case, however, I believe this is a legitimate example of the use of out-of-context quotes as a sin of commission -- this time, moreover, one specifically prohibited by one of the Ten Commandments -- to misrepresent the person quoted and mislead listeners in the House of Commons.

As I said in the post that Hiebert quoted accurately, but uncontextually, the ultimate goal of his effort is not to make unions transparent but to hobble their ability to promote such values as fairness in the workplace and society.

I stand by my point, of course, that it is imperative the same level of transparency already practiced by most unions be extended to think tanks and private corporations that benefit from tax breaks and subsidies.

And I stand by the view that what the Harper Conservative Party's backers wish on others may someday come back to haunt them.

That said, we can probably trust a future government led by Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau -- or even one led by traditional Canadian Conservatives like Segal -- to behave in a more responsible and less partisan fashion than do the increasingly extremist Harper Conservatives.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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