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The latest victory of business-funded politics was recorded last week when the Harper Conservatives passed Bill C-377 aimed at hobbling the ability of trade unions to participate in public life.

With its legislation (technically an amendment to the Income Tax Act), the Harper government is imposing new financial regulations that will add steep compliance costs and time-consuming administrative requirements to the normal activities of representing trade unionists.

Bill C-377 rests on the proposition that because trade union dues are deductible from income reported by trade unionists at tax time, use of the money received as dues by unions needs to be fully disclosed in elaborated and detailed regular reports. Since labour issues arise in areas of provincial jurisdiction, the Harper government could not act directly to limit trade unions rights (though the federal government has the ability to legislate labour in federally regulated industries, and does use it). Instead, Harper proceeded by stealth. CLC President Ken Georgetti expressed his “disgust with the recent conduct of the government.”

The Conservatives do not want people to know that trade unions already provide public financial accounts, that the members elect the leaders, debate public policy stances at conventions, and approve trade union policy statements by voting resolutions. What the Conservatives want to do is discredit trade union political activity and diminish the role unions play in public policy debate.

The harassment of trade unions by the federal Conservatives compliments the Ontario Conservatives’ efforts to drum up support for “right to work” legislation. It is also a response to the effective political campaigns run in Ontario by the Working Families coalition. The provincial Conservatives challenged, unsuccessfully, union political spending in court; their federal cousins are trying to achieve with red tape what the courts refused to do.

The Harper government’s efforts to call into question the legitimacy of trade unions also arise out of its pre-election preparations to discredit the NDP. The Conservatives hope to drive a wedge between trade union leaders and the broader public, isolating labour leaders, and creating dissent within the trade union movement, by pretending unions are living off the public purse. At the same time, the Conservatives want to paint the New Democratic Party as closely tied to a demonized trade union leadership, referred to as “labour bosses”. The broader intention is to create havoc within the New Democratic Party and distrust of its policy proposals by the public.

Work to move policy discussion in Canada off to the far right goes back decades. The main group agitating for “democracy in the workplace,” meaning restriction and repression of trade union freedoms is the National Citizens Coalition (NCC). It was founded by Colin Brown, a life insurance agent from London Ontario, who as early as 1967 expressed concern about public spending for social security. It is not hard to see why he thought public pensions and other social programs would undermine the comfortable life insurance industry centred in London Ontario — its business depended on people fearing for the future.

Relying on insurance industry money, in 1974 Brown founded a “citizens” organization to promote anti-government spending views using paid ads. From 1998 to 2002, Stephen Harper was NCC president.

It is a measure of how successful business-funded politics has become in Canada that leading a far-right lobby group would be a stepping-stone to becoming prime minister.  

In 1976, major corporations formed the Business Council on National Issues to create a climate of opinion favourable to business ideas about policy. The main driver behind the BCNI was William O. Twaits of Imperial Oil (interestingly, Stephen Harper’s father was an accountant with Imperial Oil in Toronto.)

Big business in Canada had no need for additional lobbying of government, or ceremonial meetings. Corporations funded Conservatives and Liberals alike, and had all the access they needed to the upper reaches of the public service, ministers, MPs, or whoever mattered. What Twaits wanted was for business to dominate public opinion.

The 1970s stagflation crisis (simultaneous increases in unemployment and prices) and the 1982 recession helped establish the need for change. This suited business-funded lobby groups, because change was what they were peddling. While the BCNI/CCCE played a the lead role in the Mulroney and Chretien eras, with the rise of the Reform Party and its transformation into the Harper Conservatives, more openly aggressive groups have played a leading role in pushing right-wing measures. 

Along with the NCC, the shock troops of the Harper Conservatives include the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. It was founded in 1971 by John Bulloch to fight tax reform. A scheme to promote equitable taxes, set out in a white paper by the Trudeau government (and dead by the 1972 budget) got the organization going.

The leading Western candidate to succeed Harper as Conservative party chief is Jason Kenney, who became prominent speaking as head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a key player supporting a far-right agenda.

In postwar Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress had a traditional annual meeting with the federal cabinet. The CLC Executive Council took seats across from cabinet ministers for face-to-face discussions. It was public knowledge that labour had a “place at the table” in public policy formation.

Today, not just labour, but the major policy gains won by labour: pensions, employment standards, unemployment insurance, family allowances, universal health care, and progressive taxation, are either in trouble, or already gone.

It will be interesting to see if before the election expected in October 2015, labour is able to make the Conservative MPs who voted for Bill C-377 pay the price in personal popularity in ridings where labour has a real presence.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Frank Saptel/Flickr