Feb 21, 2013

Thank you, Hugh Segal


The debate on Bill C-377 has moved to the Senate.

As many Policy Note readers probably know, Bill C-377 would impose onerous and unfair financial and operational disclosure obligations on unions and other labour organizations, in the lofty name of “transparency and accountability,” but with the actual malicious aim of weakening Labour and publicizing the nature and cost of its lobbying and political activities.  With the nearly unanimous support of all voting Conservative MPs (four voted against), including the Prime Minister, and against the unanimous opposition of all voting MPs from other parties, Bill C-377 passed third reading in the House of Commons on December 12, 2012.

Although its provisions would be imposed through changes to the Income Tax Act, Bill C-377 isn’t about Labour’s tax obligations, nor does it relate to existing assessment rules regarding tax exempt status and deductibility of union dues.  And contrary to the general policy of the Income Tax Act regarding the confidentially of tax information, the bill would require the publication of Labour’s financial filings on the Canada Revenue Agency website.  All of this raises a number of legal and policy issues, including issues related to the right to privacy, federal tax authority and solicitor-client privilege.   Additionally, Bill C-377 singles out Labour, imposing extensive disclosure requirements on unions, without a logical policy rationale, and of a scope and nature far beyond what is imposed on charities and public and private corporations.  Finally, it should be noted that in most Canadian jurisdictions, including BC, unions (which are private organizations that are not funded by government) are already legally required to make annual audited financial statements available to their members.  In contrast, many businesses, some of which receive government funding, are not obligated to disclose their financial information.

In sum, Bill C-377 is “bad legislation, bad public policy and a diminution of both the order and the freedom that should exist in any democratic, pluralist and mixed-market society.”  This honest, accurate assessment is brought to us by the Honourable Hugh Segal, progressive Conservative senator and member of the Order of Canada.  The following are some of his other thoughtful comments:

Honourable senators, I rise…to speak on Bill C-377. I believe the bill must be amended and critically examined before committee. As I do believe that, I do not oppose second reading, although I cannot vote for the bill in principle and will not. Let me share my best judgment as to why Bill C-377, dealing with broadening trade union disclosure to CRA, is bad legislation, bad public policy and a diminution of both the order and the freedom that should exist in any democratic, pluralist and mixed-market society.

… I want to point out that, while transparency is a compelling public good, applying it in a discriminatory way is harmful and divisive.

As a Tory, I believe that society prospers when different views about the public agenda, on the left and the right, are advanced by different groups, individuals and interests. Debate between opposing groups in this chamber, in the other place and in broader society is the essence of democracy. Limiting that debate as to scope and breadth is never in the long-term interest of a free and orderly society.

If this is to apply to trade unions, why would it not apply to rotary clubs, the Fraser Institute, Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations across Canada, the Council of Chief Executives, local car dealers or the many farming groups, like the cattlemen’s associations or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, all of whom do great work? How about local constituency associations, food banks, soup kitchens, or anglers and hunters clubs?

All of these groups express views on policy. All have the right, under election law, to volunteer in municipal, provincial or federal elections, and all come to Ottawa to lobby and press government on issues important to them. They do so along with representatives of the defence industry, our First Nations and various cultural groups. Are they all to be swept into the CRA bureaucratic remit? That is what this bill would lead to. If CRA is to become the political judge of what expenses are appropriate, what are the guiding criteria? The bill is silent on that.

There are, honourable senators, other doubtful provisions that should be of deep concern, such as proposed paragraph 149.01(3) (a), on page 2. It says that information shall be provided in “such form and containing such particulars… as may be prescribed.” It does not say by whom. Would it be the representatives of the Privy Council Office or the Department of Labour? Spare me.

Proposed subparagraph 149.01(3)(b)(ix) lists the need to declare what is spent on labour relations activities, with no concurrent disclosure imposed on the management side. How about a law that forced my political party to disclose its campaign, travel, research and advertising budgets to the Liberal Party of Canada or to the NDP two weeks before the election was called?

Honourable senators, this bill is about a nanny state; it has an anti-labour bias running rampant; and it diminishes the imperative of free speech, freedom of assembly and free collective bargaining.

Honourable senators, the very growth of Canada, the successive waves of immigrants from the British Isles that built Canada in the early days, depended in some measure on protecting legitimate union rights.

Honourable senators, they did so then and they do now.

The negative effect of this bill, either in deploying CRA on political missions or on limiting freedoms, is debilitating and offensive. The bill before us today, as well as right-to-work legislation that is being proposed in the other place as a private member’s bill, is not who we are as Canadians. It is time this chamber said so.

In the interests of free, collective bargaining; strong, competitive environments; safe workplaces; and the fair treatment of working men and women, socially, economic and politically, this bill should be either readily revamped or set aside. If it has been quoted on other matters in this place that “the best social policy is a job,” then people who seek union support in the workplace — as is their right in a free society — should be protected, and the unions who serve them should not be singled- out unfairly.

Thank you, honourable senators.

No.  Thank you, Hugh Segal.

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