South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale MP Russ Hiebert's controversial bill calling for full disclosure of union financial affairs was the subject of a critical lecture at the University of Regina last week.

Lecture casts shadow on Peninsula MP’s ‘transparency’ bill

Business administration professors say their research traces a relationship between anti-union groups and federal policy makers

MP Russ Hiebert’s controversial private members’ bill calling for full public disclosure of union financial affairs has come in for a detailed and scathing analysis from two professors in the faculty of business administration at the University of Regina.

In a public lecture delivered on campus last Wednesday, Sean Tucker and Andrew Stevens presented evidence they say shows the South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale MP’s bill – while touted as wishing to promote greater transparency – seems to be part of a less-than-transparent “anti-union policy agenda” on the part of the federal government.

In the presentation, Working in the Shadows for Transparency: Russ Hiebert, LabourWatch, Nanos Research and the Making of Bill C-377, Tucker and Stevens argue that Hiebert’s amendment to the Income Tax Act shows a clear relationship “between the anti-union business lobby… and federal policy makers.”

And they charge that a flawed poll claiming 83 per cent public support for full disclosure of union finances – and lax regulation in the polling industry itself – call into question the practice of polling to promote public policy.

“We find that the actions of groups and individuals associated with creating, disseminating and reviewing the influential 2011 Nanos Research-LabourWatch poll and promoting C-377, show contempt for the principle of transparency,” Tucker and Stevens write.

Hiebert, first elected in 2004, was not available for comment by Peace Arch News’ press deadline on Friday. Last February, he announced he would not seek a fifth term.

After receiving a rough ride in the Senate last year, including flak from Conservative senators who broke ranks with the government to claim the legislation is “unconstitutional,” Hiebert’s bill was returned to the House of Commons this year  – a result of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s prorogation (postponement) of Parliament deliberations in September 2013.

It has since passed in the House and is currently at second reading before the Senate.

Tucker maintained Thursday his focus on C-377 has not been politically motivated. It has been a “rabbit hole,” he said, that first opened when he was asked to contribute to a CBC open-line radio program on the bill three years ago.

But Tucker said his examination of the 2011 Nanos poll, sponsored by LabourWatch, found that some questions had been “primed” to produce responses, and that answers to one question – which would have contradicted the poll findings – had been left out.

“I did bring this to Mr. Hiebert’s attention in 2011, but he never acknowledged my letter,” he said.

This is not the first time the academics’ work has raised questions about the poll; their research was cited last year by the Canadian Labour Congress in a complaint to the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association. The complaint was subsequently dismissed by an MRIA review panel that found the poll did not violate association standards, though noting it had released “potentially biased information” on public attitudes toward unions’ disclosure of financial affairs.

Tucker said changes to the poll report urged by the panel were not adopted by LabourWatch.

In their lecture, Tucker and Stevens cited an opinion on the poll questions from  UBC professor Richard Johnson, Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation.

“You’re asking people to endorse openness,” he told them. “Well who’s against that?…I suspect that if you asked exactly the same question about corporations, it may not be 83 per cent, but I bet you it would be pretty one-sided.”

Tucker said he finds it particularly significant that the Nanos poll appeared just before Hiebert presented the first version of his bill.

“It’s unclear why Mr. Hiebert should be the author of C-377,” he said, adding he finds it “hard to believe” that the drafting of the bill was solely an initiative of the MP.

“Evidence suggests that C-377 is the product of two ideological anti-union organizations: LabourWatch and Merit Canada,” he said.

“LabourWatch is an organization that polls Canadians on a regular basis, aiming at putting labour unions in a bad light – it’s a shotgun approach in which they ask a whole bunch of questions to build up a case, and that political pressure has to go somewhere.

“The question is, do we want public policy shaped by ideological lobby groups?”

He also questioned why Hiebert would refer to LabourWatch as a “non-partisan” organization – in a news release on the poll quoted in a 2013 PAN article –  when the organization’s own website suggests otherwise.

Tucker pointed to an email from  LabourWatch president John Mortimer to Labour Minister Lisa Raitt on the eve of a 2012 vote on C-377 in the House of Commons.

“I am in Ottawa for this important day for the conservative movement and for Canadian taxpayers,” Mortimer writes, in an email obtained in a freedom-of-information request.

 

 

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