When the House finance committee met late last week just off Parliament Hill, the room was filled to overflowing. Staff scurried to haul in extra chairs to accommodate the lobbyists and lawyers, union officials and political staffers who were crammed into back corners. That sort of turnout typically signals hearings into a major government initiative that’s going to cost somebody money or change one of Ottawa’s power balances. What made this crowd remarkable was that a mere private member’s bill—the sort of legislation championed by a backbench MP that almost always gets voted down or dies from parliamentary neglect—was on the agenda. In this case, though, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s bid to force unions across Canada to publicly disclose nearly everything they spend, including on officials’ salaries and political activities, proved to be a serious draw.
Labelled Bill C-377, Hiebert’s legislation to amend the Income Tax Act has big unions increasingly worried. The Canadian Labour Congress has mounted a full-bore campaign to block it, fearing the proposal is gathering enough high-level Tory support to defy the long odds against a private member’s bill actually becoming law. Having easily passed two votes in the House with solid support from the majority Conservatives, Bill C-377 could come up for a third and final vote before the end of this year. CLC President Ken Georgetti says his union umbrella organization brought about 200 local officials to Ottawa this week to lobby Conservative MPs. Their complaint: Hiebert aims to saddle them with onerous administrative costs for no good reason. “If they are going to use this to make us waste money and time on things that don’t get better wages and working conditions for our members,” Georgetti says, “we’ll take that as a very hostile act.”
But Hiebert, who represents the suburban Vancouver riding of South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, protests that his proposal is actually pro-union. Its aim, he says, is to boost public confidence in the good work they do negotiating improved health and safety standards and pay for their members. His justification for forcing them to provide a detailed breakdown of just about all spending items over $5,000, which the Canada Revenue Agency would then post on its website for all to see, is that union dues are tax-deductible, meaning unions are supported, by Hiebert’s estimate, to the tune of a $500-million-a-year tax break. “The purpose of the bill,” he says, “is to extend the principle of public disclosure to a group of institutions that enjoy substantial public benefits.”
The bill’s union opponents protest that if the tax deductibility of dues means their finances must be fully transparent, the same should go for professional and business organizations—from lawyers’ and doctors’ groups to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business—whose membership fees are also deductible. In any case, labour law is largely a provincial jurisdiction, and labour codes in most provinces already require unions to disclose financial information to their members. The Canada Labour Code does the same for unions under federal jurisdiction. Hiebert argues, though, that the public, not just the union rank and file, deserve access to that information. As well, he points out that U.S. law requires detailed disclosure, which means the best source of fine-grained financial data on any Canadian unions affiliated with American unions is often the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.
Still, while Hiebert professes to be for transparency, and not against unions, his allies are hardly friends of organized labour. Merit Canada, the national lobby group for the “open shop,” or non-unionized, construction industry, has thrown its support behind Bill C-377. Merit has mounted a campaign under the slogan, “Why is big labour afraid of the light?” According to a publicly disclosed report filed with the federal lobbyists’ registry, Merit’s representatives met on Oct. 23 with Hiebert and Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s powerful chief of staff. Also attending that top-level lobbying session were Alykhan Velshi, Harper’s director of planning, and two senior officials from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s department.
Despite this clear indication of attention from the government’s highest echelons, exactly how the Prime Minister’s Office and the finance department view Hiebert’s initiative remains unknown. Their support would be essential for the bill to ultimately pass into law. Union officials say Harper’s cabinet is split on Hiebert’s bill, and not all Tory backbench MPs are behind it.
But the legislation is enthusiastically supported by a cluster of outspoken, populist Conservative MPs who have a way of making themselves heard. Among these Tory ultras is Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, who mounted his own campaign to end the requirement that federal-regulated employees in unionized workplaces pay union dues, after the Public Service Alliance of Canada angered him by supporting candidates of the separatist Parti Québécois in the recent Quebec provincial election. Another is Winnipeg MP Shelly Glover, who used last week’s committee session on Hiebert’s bill to highlight how Elections Canada deemed union sponsorship of NDP conventions since 2006 to be illegal donations, forcing the opposition party to pay back nearly $350,000.
The ideologically charged, sharply partisan view of unions presented by Poilievre and Glover, however, might be less important in the end than technical details in Hiebert’s bill. At last week’s finance committee meeting, officials from the Canadian Bar Association warned the bill raises a raft of legal questions. The CBA’s experts said proposed “onerous reporting requirements” might violate privacy laws and Charter of Rights protections of freedom of association and expression. Hiebert said amendments could fix those problems. But as his bill is subjected to intense behind-closed-doors political calculations, in a climate of high-stakes lobbying from both sides, any added questions about whether it is legally sound could be the factor that finally determines the bill’s fate.