The Harper government is making a show of pushing for greater transparency from Canada's mining companies -- but how serious is it really?
On Monday, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver used the occasion of a major mining industry convention to announce that, sometime in the future, Canada will require "extractive companies" to publicly report payments of $100,000 and over that they make to federal and provincial governments in Canada -- and, more importantly, to the governments of other countries.
This means that when a Canadian mining company pays royalties to the government of say Eritrea, the company will have to report those payments, even if the African country's government chooses not to.
The cruel fact is that governments of many countries collect huge resource revenues from multi-national corporations without publicly reporting any of them. Ordinary citizens have no way of knowing what happens to the money.
There is significant concern that too much of that resource wealth ends up in Swiss bank accounts.
A tentative approach from a government that knows how to hurry
Canadian rules requiring mining companies to report payments have been a long time coming. They were a commitment the Harper government made last June, and other G8 countries have already enacted similar measures -- measures which even the mining industry thinks are necessary. Many of those other countries' measures are quite a bit more stringent than the rules Oliver proposed on Monday.
Liberal MP John McKay has a private member's bill before the House of Commons which has the same notional aim as the new regulations Oliver announced on Monday.
But McKay's bill goes much further.
McKay would not put a $100,000 minimum on reportable payments. Companies would have to report all payments, and the Liberal MP would impose independent audits on extractive companies.
In addition, McKay's bill includes serious fines for non-compliance, fines that could go as high as $5 million.
Oliver says the government has not yet worked out the small matter of penalties. And as for making the information on payments widely available, that will be up to the mining companies themselves. They will be required to post information about their payments to governments only on their own web sites. The government will not create a central registry of all of this crucial information.
It goes without saying that personal payments and gifts to foreign leaders, commissions, and -- well, there is no other word for them -- bribes would not in any way, shape or form be covered by Oliver's proposed new rules.
What the Conservatives are suggesting is not exactly putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It is perhaps more like asking the fox to report on how many hens it has eaten this week.
Finally, in case you thought the government considered all of this to be a matter of some urgency, Oliver says he will not be ready to table legislation enacting these new rules for more than a year. That will bring us perilously close to the next federal election.
This tentative, go-slow approach comes from a government that crammed a slew of major environmental legislative changes into two omnibus budget implementation bills and rushed them through Parliament. When Harper's folks want to get laws passed in a hurry they sure know how.
It should not come as a surprise that the Harper government's approach to mining transparency is so weak and timid. This government spares no effort to portray itself as a faithful friend of Canada's extractive sector.
When Oliver's office made Monday's announcement, it preceded it with a paean to the ways in which the Harper government has acted to "grow and strengthen" the Canadian mining sector.
Two of those ways are: a seven year, $100 million commitment to a Geo-Mapping program, designed to help mining companies "find deposits and create jobs"; and the most recent budget's extension of the Mineral Exploration Tax Credit to allow "junior exploration companies to raise $5 billion in capital."
This Conservative government is obviously a fervent believer in welfare -- corporate welfare, that is.
No action on mining Ombudsman or on a serious approach to CSR
Last October in this space, we reported on the efforts of unions and human rights groups to give people in other countries who believe they have been abused by Canadian extractive industries access to Canadian courts.
The Harper government has yet to pick up on that suggestion.
And while Oliver is intent on strengthening the mining industry, he has done nothing to strengthen the role of the mining industry Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counselor.
A coalition of labour and human rights groups, which calls itself the Corporate Accountability Network, has described the Counselor position as being very ineffectual. The Network wants to see that position replaced by a Canadian extractive sector Ombudsman, whose office would have real powers and real authority.
For instance, mining companies currently have the right, without stating any reason, to decline the Counselor's invitation to talk things over with people who believe they have been harmed by any of the companies' activities.
That means most cases brought before the Counselor go nowhere.
Such would not be the case with the Corporate Accountability Network's proposed Ombudsman.
As it happens, the Corporate Social Responsibility Counselor position is currently vacant, and has been so since Marketa Evans left the job in October 2013.
As required by legislation, the Harper government has been conducting a five year review of its corporate social responsibility strategy since last year.
In December, there was a single consultation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which, according to reports, was more like speed-dating than an exchange of views. Each NGO had about three minutes to make its case.
Now, it seems the government is ready to make public the results of the consultation.
Last week, CBC reported that it has obtained documents that give an idea of where the Harper government is heading, and there does not seem to be any plan to implement the Ombudsman idea.
A letter from Trade Minister Ed Fast, which the CBC obtained through Access to Information, states that the government continues to support "voluntary mechanisms for dispute resolution." In other words, the government is committed to maintaining something that will resemble the current system, however weak and ineffective that system is.
Whatever the CSR review concludes, it is certain that Harper's government will continue to divert scarce international development resources from helping those most in need to facilitating the activities of Canadian mining companies.
Rather than using international development activities to build the capacity of grassroots communities, which must deal with well-financed multi-nationals hungry for their resources, Harper's government considers foreign aid to be yet another opportunity for corporate welfare.