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Well, there we have it. The Conservative government has just rammed Bill C-377, legislation which will saddle unions with ridiculously detailed, costly financial reporting requirements, through the House of Commons. The bill was successfully voted in by MPs on Wednesday evening, by a margin of 147 to 135.
The new law will “increase the transparency and accountability of all labour organizations as a result of the fact that they receive substantial public benefits through the tax system,” said Conservative MP Bob Zimmer in Tuesday’s debate leading up to the vote. “The principle here is that… the public has a right to be informed about how foregone taxpayer dollars are being spent.”
“Why does the bill target only labour organizations and not all organizations?” retorted Wayne Marston, an NDP MP. “There are other organizations in the country that receive the benefits of tax breaks … Is this not discriminatory?”
That’s a peculiar inconsistency that even a Conservative MP, Brent Rathgeber, has echoed concerns about. “The list of entities that benefit from being operated on dollars that are not taxable… is indeed a long one,” he wrote in a blog post criticizing the bill. “The Law Society, The Bar Association, even the Chamber of Commerce operate entirely on fees that were tax deducted…”
Nonetheless, labour organizations will now be obliged to publicly disclose their financial activities at a level of exacting detail not demanded of any other entity benefiting indirectly from tax deduction rules (and that includes registered charities, to which the bill’s proponents are so fond of comparing unions).
It’s been a strange journey for Bill C-377. Introduced as a private members’ bill — a species of aspiring legislation that traditionally stands a slim chance of becoming law — C-377 seems to have been hand-picked by the Conservative government for special, fast-track treatment.
In late November, after a filibuster by the NDP blocked Conservative MPs from introducing amendments to the bill at committee stage, it was reported back to the House of Commons in its original form. According to parliamentary procedure, private members’ bills are not generally open to amendment once they are reported from a committee back to the House of Commons. For amendments to be introduced at this stage, the government itself has to step in and put the amendments on the agenda. It’s a rare move, and it is exactly what happened in this case.
The amendments were to be welcomed; they took a few of the sharper edges off some of the very worst aspects of the bill. But the fact that the government intervened in order to pave the way for a more palatable bill to come to vote in the house suggests the extent to which, far from being a run-of-the-mill backbencher’s bill, C-377 was a government darling, with the full weight of the Prime Minister’s Office behind it.
The next procedural oddity was the flurry of swapping that breezed the bill from the end of committee stage through a House debate, third reading and final vote in the space of less than a week. That speedy progress was facilitated by other Conservative backbenchers agreeing twice to move their own bills down to the bottom of the parliamentary agenda to push C-377 ahead in line.
So the Conservatives have a nice Christmas present to bring home for the holidays: a law that selectively tilts the playing field in the favour of employers over unions, some of which may be crippled by onerous, costly reporting responsibilities.
The one comfort labour groups may take home from Parliament Hill this week is that the reporting requirements created by Bill C-377 are so extensive that the Canadian Revenue Agency estimates it will take years to set up a system to administer it all. By that time, there’s a chance the Supreme Court will have struck the law down in response to the constitutional challenges that will almost certainly be launched against it.
Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca‘s labour reporter.