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Private member’s bill to head to Senate

Conservative backbencher Russ Hiebert’s controversial private member’s bill to have Canadian labour unions file financial statements annually with Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has cleared a major hurdle.

Bill C-377 has moved to the Senate after passing third reading in the House of Commons on Dec. 12, by a vote of 147 to 135.

Hiebert, MP for South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, said Friday that he does not consider the vote a narrow margin.

“There are always members who have to be away from the chambers for one reason or another,” he told Peace Arch News. “It’s a clear majority – there’s no doubt about that. I’d say it would be a good indication of the level of support there is for the bill.”

Nor is Hiebert concerned that five of his fellow Conservative MPs voted against the bill, which would force unions to disclose publicly how they spend members’ dues.

“It’s not uncommon,” he said. “This is a private member’s bill, not government legislation. I respect the choice my colleagues made.”

One who voted against C-377 is Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber, a former labour lawyer, who blogged concerns about the bill in October. The Tory MP has disputed the lynch pin of Hiebert’s bill, that the tax deductibility of union dues makes the money collected – and what is done with it – a matter of public interest.

“Tax-deducted dollars are not public dollars,” he wrote in his blog. “They are private dollars that the state has not chosen to tax.”

Hiebert said he is well aware of  Rathgeber’s position, and he disagrees with it.

“We’ve talked about it several times, and we’ve been in the finance committee hearings (on the bill) together,” he said. “Chalk it up for a difference of opinion – which is not uncommon between lawyers.”

Hiebert has also been steadfast in denying Canadian Labour Congress and Opposition charges that the bill serves a union-busting agenda of the Harper government, saying  transparency will only strengthen confidence in the work unions do for members.

Hiebert said it is hard to say how quickly his bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons over a year before it passed third reading, will move through the Senate.

“Unlike the House of Commons, which has very clear deadlines that must be adhered to, the Senate does not.

“There is a possibility it could be delayed, but the sense I get from the senators I have spoken to is that they support this,” he added, noting the bill is being sponsored there by Sen. Nicole Eden.

Costs of the bill to unions and the public has also been fiercely debated, with the Opposition and unions claiming it will tally far higher than CRA estimates of $2.4 million for implementation and $800,000 per year after that.

As well, representatives of Canada’s Privacy Commissioner and the Canadian Bar Association have said there continue to be privacy and constitutionality concerns about an amended version of the bill.

But Hiebert said he feels the amendments were a reflection of concerns raised by MPs on both sides of the House since the bill was introduced.

“I really do believe the process results in better legislation, and in my case a better bill,” he said.

Hiebert said he recognizes that very few private member’s bills make it this far, and that, in itself, gives him a sense of accomplishment.

“I’m perfectly thrilled,” he said. “There are not a lot of opportunities an MP has to do something of lasting impact. This is the first piece of legislation I’ve shepherded through from the beginning, and it feels really good to do something substantial.”

 

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