OTTAWA - The Conservative-dominated Senate has discovered inadvertent drafting errors in a bill targeting labour unions — but is poised to pass it anyway.
Conservatives used their majority on the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee Friday to reject Liberal amendments that would have corrected the mistakes in C-525.
Amending the bill would be tantamount to killing it, they argued.
A bill that is amended by the Senate must be sent back to the House of Commons for reconsideration.
Because C-525 is a private member's bill, sponsored by Conservative backbencher Blaine Calkins, it would go to the bottom of the list of bills to be dealt with by the Commons.
Given that "cumbersome" process, Tory Sen. Scott Tannas warned that amending the bill to correct the errors "will likely guarantee that this bill will never see the light of day."
"It's clear to us, to me, that the amending procedure for private member's bills is fraught with danger," Tannas, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, told the committee.
Instead, Tannas said the Senate should pass the bill as is, with an "observation" that there are errors that should be fixed before the legislation goes into force. His Conservative colleagues agreed, voting down proposed Liberal amendments to fix the mistakes.
James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, argued that the Senate isn't doing it's job as the chamber of sober second thought.
"We've just had the Supreme Court of Canada tell us that our job is legislative review. That's Job 1," Cowan told the committee.
"Here we have done what we're supposed to do: We've identified a problem and we know what the solution is. So why don't we do it?"
The bill is expected to be put to a final vote in the Senate next week.
C-525 would require a majority secret ballot vote by employees before bargaining units in federally regulated public service unions can be certified or decertified. Union leaders maintain it would make it harder for bargaining units to get certified but easier to disband them.
The bill involves changes to a number of existing laws, including the Public Service Labour Relations Act, which is where the drafting mistakes crept in. The bill moves one section of the act into a new section, without simultaneously amending other provisions of the act that make reference to the moved section.
Catherine Ebbs, chair of the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board, told the committee the technical error means her board would lose its power to regulate the evidence that must be filed when an employee organization applies for certification of a bargaining unit.
"The impact of this change is not trivial because our current specific regulations will be effectively removed from our tool kit to deal with applications for certification," she said.
Ebbs added that the mistakes are not "fatal," that the board can probably work around them until the legislation is fixed. Still, she said the board would prefer that they be corrected before the legislation goes into effect.
Michel Bedard, parliamentary legal counsel for the Senate, played down the impact of passing a flawed bill. He advised the committee that the courts will generally correct any obvious drafting errors when confronted with defective legislation.
It won't be the first time the Senate has passed legislation that it knew to contain technical errors.
Last spring, the upper chamber passed a private member's bill sponsored by Conservative backbencher Parm Gill, aimed at making it a crime to recruit young people into gangs. That bill contained a number of drafting errors that would have led to inconsistent provisions in the Criminal Code.
In that case, amendments to fix the errors would certainly have killed the bill.
Gill had been promoted to parliamentary secretary after shepherding his bill through the Commons. Had the Senate sent the bill back to the Commons, procedural rules would have prevented Gill — no longer a backbencher — from reintroducing it and would not have allowed anyone else to do so in his stead.
In the case of C-525, Cowan argued there's no such impediment to fixing the mistakes. And he said there's still plenty of time before next fall's scheduled election for the Commons to deal with any amendments approved by the Senate.
"There's lots of time to get this fixed up," he said, "and that's what we should do."