MP Russ Hiebert’s controversial private members’ bill is still embroiled in controversy in its return engagement before Canadian senators.
Senate Liberal leader James Cowan signalled earlier this month that the legislation, Bill C-377 – an amendment to the Income Tax Act requiring labour unions to disclose detailed financial information – is in for just as bumpy a ride as it received last year.
Contacted last week, Hiebert (South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale) noted the supportive statements of the bill’s sponsor, Conservative Senator Bob Runciman – on its reintroduction on Sept. 27– and said he is “pleased the Senate is considering the version that was passed by the House of Commons,” and that he hopes senators will give it “a more positive reception” this time around.
In a scathing summary on second reading of the bill on Nov. 4, Cowan noted the bill – heavily amended by the senate in June 2013 – is back at the chamber only because Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued (suspended) Parliament in the fall of 2013, effectively nullifying senators’ earlier changes.
“All these months later, we find ourselves back at square one – the parliamentary equivalent of (the movie) Groundhog Day,” Cowan said. “While Bill Murray’s character…was forced to relive the same day until he had changed for the better, we’re being forced to redo our consideration of the bill in the hope that we will agree to change for the worse.”
Calling it an “anti-union bill,” Cowan suggested several times its true author is Merit Canada, an organization that represents ‘open-shop’ construction associations. But Hiebert maintains he is the sole author and rejects Cowan’s “anti-union” characterization of it.
“It’s nothing of the sort,” the MP told PAN. “It’s a bill for public disclosure and transparency (of union finances).”
Hiebert noted a most recent survey indicates 84 per cent favour publishing such information, while critics claim the practice will undermine the competitiveness of businesses dealing with unions and compromise the privacy of those receiving union benefits.
Asked if Merit Canada played a role in drafting the legislation, Hiebert answered “no… The legislation was mine and mine alone.”
Cowan also charged in his speech that the only real difference about the return of C-377 to the Senate is that Sen. Hugh Segal – who led Conservative senators’ resistance last year – has since retired, and he cited recent comments by Segal that it is “badly-drafted legislation, flawed, unconstitutional and technically incompetent….”
Hiebert dismissed the comments.
“These are all phrases people use when they can’t specify complaints about a bill they don’t like,” he said. “They throw whatever nasty comments they can at it – but when you look at the substance (of it), it’s nothing of the sort.”
Cowan called for the Senate’s earlier amendments to be reinstated and the bill be returned to Parliament quickly.
“The many Canadians who took time to present their views to our committee, whose voices were reflected in our committee’s observations… deserve to have their contributions considered by the other place.”
Cowan attacked Hiebert’s argument that the fundamental premise behind the bill is that the public provides substantial tax exemptions to unions, therefore the public should know how the benefit is being used.
In his speech, Cowan said the bill is “… is designed to bury labour unions in so much paperwork that they will not be able to represent their workers as fully and capably as they do now.”
He said many conclude that unions are being singled out by the legislation as a result of less-than-enthusiastic reaction to federal handling of labour relations.
But Hiebert said the bill is not intended to “bury” unions, and that Cowan says unions already provide the information to their members – “he can’t have it both ways.”
Hiebert noted labour organizations said “exactly the same thing” when the U.S. was in the process of adopting similar legislation.
Cowan said constitutional experts predict the bill will be open to court challenge as a federal intrusion into provincial negotiations. Arguing that C-377 is “a solution seeking a problem,” he noted five provinces have told the Senate the law is unconstitutional.
“The provinces have spoken,” he said. “The problem is that this federal government does not like what the provinces have said.”