Labour groups have called it a transparent attack on unions and on free speech. The NDP's federal labour critic dismisses it as "useless, discriminatory, unconstitutional, costly and excessively bureaucratic."
It's no surprise that Bill C-377, a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert that would require unions to publicly disclose detailed financial information, has raised the ire of unions and the official opposition.
But recent analysis by more impartial commentators such as legal scholars and the Canada Revenue Agency suggest there may be serious constitutional and budgetary problems with the bill as well.
The House of Commons finance committee wrapped up discussion of the bill on Monday, which means it's headed back to the house for a third, final reading. The NDP is hoping it can stop the bill in its tracks with various procedural manoeuvres they have made in the past week.
On Monday, officials from the Canada Revenue Agency reported to the committee on how much it would cost the government to process the reams of financial reports that unions and trusts would have to submit every year under the legislation. It estimates a price tag of $10.6 million for the first two years, plus an ongoing cost of $2.1 million every subsequent year.
Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP labour critic, says that's likely a vast underestimate, since it's based on an assumption that 1,000 different organizations would have to file separate reports under the legislation. "Our evaluation is that the breadth of the bill will actually cover 25,000 organizations," says Boulerice.
Regardless of the exact amount, Boulerice says the significant cost puts the bill in contravention of the parliamentary rule that a private member's bill cannot create new spending obligations for the government without first receiving a "royal recommendation." He appealed last Thursday to the Speaker of the House of Commons to rule that Bill C-377 requires royal recommendation before MPs can vote on it. The Speaker has yet to rule on this point of order.
The other concern with the legislation that Boulerice is hoping may stop it dead in its tracks is the likelihood that it would be found unconstitutional if challenged in court. In Monday's finance committee meeting, he read an analysis of the bill by a law professor which concludes that, by creating new federal regulations over unions, it would intrude on the provinces' unique jurisdiction over labour matters.
The Canadian Bar Association has weighed in on the bill's constitutionality as well, saying it infringes on Canadians' constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. The legal association also has concerns with the bill's intrusions on privacy and its imposition of massive administrative costs onto every pension or benefit fund that has any unionized beneficiaries.
"Investment managers at a large pension fund might enter into thousands of transactions per year," the association pointed out in a brief to the finance committee. "The disclosure required will be staggering, and there will be significant compliance costs. This is especially problematic as many pension funds are currently struggling with low interest rates and a fragile world economy."
Last Friday, Conservative MP Brian Jean circulated potential amendments to the bill among finance committee members, with the intention of discussing them Monday. The amendments, he said, deal with many of the concerns related to privacy and to cost. With his amendments, registered pension plans and benefit plans would no longer be affected, and the addresses of people or businesses receiving payments would not be publicly disclosed.
In the end, the amendments were never introduced at committee. The opposition MPs filibustered by taking the entire time to present arguments on their motion that the bill should not be reported back to the house. They claimed the amendments, introduced so late in the game, are merely cosmetic, and only deal with a few of the bill's many serious problems.
For instance, the illogical targeting of unions for onerous and costly reporting requirements would be left intact.
The rationale behind the proposed legislation, claims Hiebert, is that since workers can deduct the dues they pay to the union as business expenses on their taxes, unions enjoy a public benefit akin to a tax break. It follows, Hiebert argues, that unions should be held accountable to taxpayers for how they spend their money.
The problem with that, labour groups say, is that unions are only one of many groups that benefit from tax measures. Professional associations are also funded by tax-deductible members' fees, and businesses benefit from a variety of tax write-offs, not to mention grants covering everything from job creation to research and development. Yet Bill C-377 only covers unions -- which are already required to disclose more financial information than businesses under existing labour statutes.
So that's the end of the finance committee's study of Bill C-377. Unless the Speaker rules that it requires royal recommendation to proceed, it will head back to the House of Commons, unamended, for its third reading and a vote by MPs. Its current position in the order of business puts that at sometime in the new year. But there is a possibility it could be moved ahead by bumping another bill lower down the list of priorities, in which case, it could come to a vote as early as next week.
Whenever it does come to a vote, we can expect it will have strong backing from the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Though it is almost unheard of for the government to take a question on private members' business during question period, parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre did just that yesterday for Bill C-377.
"The NDP's attempt to block this union transparency bill and block workers' rights only strengthens our party's resolve to support that member's bill and its amendments,” said Poilievre.
Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter.
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