When was the last time Canada's senators were praised from many quarters for their courageous action?
That's what happened recently after members of the Senate, including 16 Conservative senators, amended the government-backed Private Member's Bill C-377, a bill so blatantly unconstitutional and punitive that they forced it back to the House of Commons for reconsideration.
When was the last time a Conservative senator described legislation supported by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as "an expression of statutory contempt" towards Canada's 4-million union members?
But that's what Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said in a recent speech that criticized C-377 for its unfair, unnecessary and discriminatory provisions against unions. The bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert would demand onerous and expensive disclosure of financial information about individuals and companies, posted publicly on a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website.
Unions weren't alone in the criticisms of this bill. Five provincial governments, the Canadian Bar Association, constitutional experts, the life insurance and mutual fund industries and the federal Privacy Commissioner all are on record as opposing the bill for good reason. It singles out unions for discriminatory treatment, invades the privacy of individuals, violates provincial jurisdiction, and is likely unconstitutional.
I publicly thank Senators for taking seriously their responsibilities as legislators. Members of Parliament should also take this opportunity to have their own sober second thoughts about this bad legislation and consign it to the dustbin when they return in the fall.
Bill C-377 was purportedly the work of Conservative MP Russ Hiebert and he put it forward as a Private Member's Bill. But the bill had the fingerprints of Prime Minister's Office (PMO) written all over it. Mr. Hiebert appeared to have little grasp of the content of his own bill when he introduced it in October 2011. He claimed, in a news conference then that he had consulted widely on his bill, even with union members. But when asked to provide the names of those people, he could not do so. He also claimed, in a subsequent news conference that he had consulted with experts who told him his bill was constitutional. Again, when asked to provide the name of even one such expert, he was unable to do so.
The PMO however seemed acutely aware of the bill in all of its detail. In fact, senior officials in the PMO met multiple times with Terrance Oakey, the president of Merit Canada, a construction industry lobbyist and the bill's main proponent.
Despite the amendments introduced by the Senators, Bill C-377 remains deeply flawed and should be seen for what it really is ‒ an attempt to bully and harass union members and their elected representatives. It should be withdrawn.
The bill has nothing to do with financial transparency and good public policy. The government is not forcing other organizations representing employers, doctors, lawyers, accountants and all other non-profit groups and charities to produce similar expensive and detailed reports.
The bill also rests on the false premise that unions provide little by way of financial reporting to their own members and none to the general public. In fact, unions regularly report and our members have access to those reports.
The legislative strategy behind Bill C-377 mirrors that behind Bill C-525, a Private Member's Bill introduced by Conservative MP Blaine Calkins, a backbencher from Alberta.
This bill would make it easier to decertify unions in the federally-regulated sector and almost impossible for workers to certify a union to represent them in the workplace.
Bill C-525 sets the bar so high for workers to join a union that even the bill's sponsor Blaine Calkins, who won 81.5 per cent of the vote in the last election, couldn't get elected if he had to run under the same voting rules he wants for workers. In fact not a single Conservative MP would have been elected in the last election if they had to run under the rules proposed by their caucus colleague. That's unfair and hypocritical.
Having both of these bills introduced as Private Member's Bills is a thinly-disguised way for the government to use backbenchers to introduce legislation against groups that don't see the world in the same way as the government.
Private Member's Bills were meant to be an outlet for MPs to introduce ideas near and dear to their hearts, and not as another avenue for the government to introduce legislation by stealth. Bill C-525 must also be withdrawn.
With a shaky world economy, stock market jitters, high unemployment and many jobless Canadians unable to even collect benefits, the Conservative government has more important things to take care of than to use their legislative power to bully, harass, and in the words of the Globe and Mail in a December 2012 print editorial, conduct a "witch hunt" on groups that don't agree with them.
That's why those Liberal and 16 Conservative Senators deserve praise for their work late in June.
Ken Georgetti is president of the 3.3 million member Canadian Labour Congress.