This month, a private members bill C-377, "An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act" (requirements for labour organizations), is scheduled for third reading in Parliament, one of the last steps before becoming law. The bill, introduced by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert, singles out unions and their trusts (including pension and benefits plans) to file public, keyword-searchable statements on all transactions over $5,000, including salaries of all employees and pension and disability payouts matched with identifying information. Additionally, unions would have to disclose itemized lists of services and supplies purchased from private firms along with prices paid.
Just as the 2012 budget is dubbed the "jobs and growth" budget while it slashes at least 20,000 jobs from the civil service, Bill C-377 is being presented as a measure to increase transparency and accountability, when it is nothing but an attempt at attacking and distracting a key element of civil society -- labour unions.
Unions like the Public Service Alliance of Canada are, of course, already accountable and transparent to their membership. At all levels -- local (i.e., the workplace), regional and national -- the leadership is elected and rank and file members can not only ask to see budget details but also have a say in spending decisions. Even so, as surmised by one observer, bill C-377 will now impose "financial disclosure requirements on unions far greater than those required of any other organization in Canada. Not even the government itself is required to provide this level of disclosure."
While cutting public funds to organizations that refuse to toe the Conservative party line like the Native Women's Association of Canada, Canada Without Poverty, and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, can be accomplished by ministerial decree, defunding unions, which operate on membership dues, is far less evident for the Harper government.
Effectively, the Conservatives are using bill C-377 to burden labour organizations with endless and costly paperwork under the guise of transparency and accountability, in the hope that this will distract unions from fighting the absurdly long yet ever-growing list of excesses and abuses perpetrated by the Harper regime.
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The Conservative government has introduced Bill C-45, the second omnibus budget implementation bill. Here's a brief look at what's inside the 450-page document. With files from CBC
UPDATE: MP Pensions have been hived off from the omnibus bill and passed without further debate in a surprise deal between the government and opposition parties. Starting as early as January 2013, public servants and MPs will have to contribute 50 per cent of the payments into their pensions. MPs will also have to wait until age 65 to start collecting their pensions, or be penalized if they start at age 55. The precise date for MP pension changes is Jan. 1, 2016. There will be no change to the current eligibility for MP pensions of six years of service.
The Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board will be dissolved, and an interim means of establishing premium rates set up to replace its work. The Crown Corporation is currently run by a seven-member board. This move continues employment insurance changes started with the first omnibus budget bill, as cabinet gradually receives more authority to reform EI.
The bill makes what could be controversial changes to the Indian Act, amending it to change the rules around what kind of meetings or referenda are required to lease or otherwise grant an interest in designated reserve lands. The aboriginal affairs minister would also be given the authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering an absolute surrender of the band's territory.
Last spring's changes to the Environmental Assessment Act are tweaked further in this omnibus bill.
The bill will extend a popular small business hiring credit.
C-45 also facilitates the construction of a new bridge across the Detroit River at Windsor, announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last summer. Certain legislation will be changed and other legislation won't apply to this bridge. Three federal bodies will cease to exist with the passage of this legislation.
The bill also amends the Canada Grain Act, simplifying the way it classifies grain terminals, repealing grain appeal tribunals, and ending several other requirements of the current Act, giving the Canadian Grains Commission more power to regulate the grain industry. These changes follow the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over wheat and barley sales in Western Canada, which take effect for this year's harvest.
All the work of the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission will be transferred to the health minister.
The Merchant Seamen Compensation Board will see its authority transferred to the Minister of Labour. The three-person board currently hears and decides benefit claims for merchant seamen who are injured or disabled as a result of their work and are not currently covered by provincial workers' compensation benefits.
In their quest to disrupt unions, however, it appears the Conservatives are ready to inflict some collateral damage, even if that includes the privacy of Canadian citizens. As noted above, the current formulation of bill C-377 would require disclosure of pension and benefit plan members' details, and this would also include those of non-union workers if their plans operate via a trust that also covers unionized workers.
The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) warns that "details of members' and beneficiaries' pension and benefit payments amounts exceeding $5,000 will be publicly available, along with their addresses...Individuals in receipt of disability benefits or in need of significant drug benefits will have their personal information (including reason for being in receipt of disability or which drugs are being taken) publicly available."
Reflecting these concerns, in its submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) rightly argues that "[t]here is absolutely no reason for the government of Canada to collect information from any health plan ... on payments to an individual for mental health counseling services or for marital counseling as an example."
These infringements on the privacy of Canadians, amongst other extreme measures contained in the bill, are so severe that the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) has openly urged that it not be passed into law. To this end, the CBA explains that "the Bill lacks an appropriate balance between any legitimate public goals and respect for the privacy interests protected by law," and adds that it "interferes with the internal administration and operations of a union, which the constitutionally protected freedom of association precludes..."
It is certainly difficult to believe that the Conservatives' motivations are in any way underpinned by principles of transparency and accountability. The Conservatives' first 425-page budget 2012 implementation bill, passed in June, changed or abolished 74 pieces of legislation at once, without a semblance of proper debate. And the second phase of the budget implementation bill, this time a 443-page mammoth presented in mid-October, seeks to repeat the trick and implement changes to items as diverse as environmental and aboriginal law that were not even discussed in the 2012 Budget tabled in March. (That most Canadians are opposed to such measures, moreover, appears to be of no concern to the Conservatives.)
Or take the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) investment treaty, to be ratified imminently after Harper rejected requests for public hearings. The treaty will lock Canada into a 31-year regime that elevates the secretive interests of foreign investors above those of the Canadian public, prompting the Ottawa Citizen's Michael Den Tandt to exclaim: "That something so far-reaching would be imposed, almost entirely without debate, is mind boggling."
Bill C-377's thinly-veiled attempt at diminishing unions' capacity for political action against the Conservative agenda of cuts to public services as well as tax and regulatory breaks for corporations is the latest chapter in the Harper government's dishonest assault on civil society, a vital component of democracy. During his recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Francophonie Summit, where he reportedly visited local civil society groups, Stephen Harper said that he hoped that in the future "la Francophonie and other major organizations will decide to hold a summit only in countries with democratic standards." One can't help but wonder whether Canada will qualify.
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