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Third reading of Bill C-377, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations)

Hon. Art Eggleton:

Honourable senators, two years ago almost to the day, I stood in the chamber to argue against Bill C-377. We were able to amend it, a great piece of sober second thought, and send it back to the House of Commons. Yet, they did nothing with it. Here we are again arguing against the same bill and all the arguments we gave at that time remain relevant today.

No, it’s not going to be the same speech; it’s updated.

Bill C-377 is an appalling bill. It’s a witch hunt against unions and targets their operations and their relations. It raises many privacy concerns and is likely unconstitutional. It has excessive red tape and will be expensive not only for the unions but also for taxpayers. The bill also probably violates International Labour Organization Convention 87, which was ratified by Canada.

The stated purpose of this bill, as before, is to increase transparency. Yet it exclusively targets unions and excludes other professional organizations such as legal, accounting and medical associations, whose members are able to deduct professional fees on their tax returns as employment expenses. Why are we singling out the unions?

Under section 110 of the Canada Labour Code, unions are already required to make their financial statements available to their members. In other words, unions are already accountable to their membership. If members want information, they can get it by law. There’s no evidence that the current system of laws and practices requiring union financial disclosure is broken. The number of complaints from union workers represents less than 1 per cent of more than 4 million union members in Canada.

Honourable senators, this bill will violate provincial jurisdiction. Labour relations fall mainly under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories. In 2013, I mentioned that five provinces representing a majority of the Canadian population were against the bill because they see it as encroaching on their rights. Since then, Prince Edward Island has added its name, so now there are six — the majority of the provinces by far representing the majority of the population. Don’t you listen to them?

The Canadian Bar Association previously said that Bill C-377 is “problematic from a constitutional and privacy perspective” and has “the potential to invite constitutional challenge and litigation.” The association appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs this past April to again argue against this bill.

They said:

In June 2013, the Senate sent an amended version of Bill C-377 back to the House of Commons for its consideration. These amendments changed the face and scope of the bill, and from our perspective made significant improvements.

Honourable senators, as nothing has changed, it is wise to make similar amendments once again. I support the amendments coming from Senator Ringuette, Senator Bellemare and Senator Cowan. I think they all are trying to get us back to something that is a more reasonable state.

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien has also stated his concerns with the bill. Appearing before that same committee, he stated:

From a policy perspective, it would be a bill that would go too far in terms of having a notion of accountability prevail over privacy.

Honourable senators, this bill would also create unnecessary bureaucratic red tape not only for unions, but for government and business, costing millions and hampering efficiency. For instance, businesses that administer pension plans would have significant additional reporting, some of it duplicating existing regulatory requirements that they must already comply with. In a single year, investment managers typically conduct 11,000 transactions on behalf of a small pension plan with over $200 million in financial transactions. Under this bill, they would have to compile and report to the government literally thousands of payments in excess of $5,000 to their beneficiaries, all publicly done.

The sheer amount of information a union would be required to disclose is absurd. Should this bill pass as is, unions would be required to disclose over 20 pieces of information. Subsection 149.01(3) adds “any other prescribed statements,” I might add, so that leaves the amount of information in an open-ended state.

This government has said it is against red tape. Yet too often organizations that happen to fall out of their ideological scope find themselves buried in red tape. Due to this red tape, Bill C-377 would be very expensive to administer, and the costs would fall on the Canadian taxpayer. With over 25,000 unions and labour organizations representing over 4 million Canadians, the set up and administration costs would fall in the millions of dollars.

The Canadian Bar Association has said, “It is difficult to see what issues or problems this bill is trying to fix.” I say, why burden the taxpayers with unnecessary expense?

Furthermore, the bill flies in the face of our international obligations under Article 3 of the International Labour Organizations Convention 87. Canada ratified this convention in 1972. Under this article, unions would have the full freedom to organize their administrative activities, and public authorities should refrain from any interference that restricts this right.

I also want to mention some underlying consequences of the legislation. As I have stated previously in this chamber, income inequality in Canada is a real threat to our social fabric and to our social cohesion. This widening gap between the rich and the rest is a looming crisis. A society in which a small group is benefiting unfairly can lead to dissension, increases in crime, loss of participation and isolation.

The erosion of unions over the last three decades has been a significant factor in rising income inequality and depressing wages for middle-class Canadians. Since the 1980s, there been a steady decline in the rate of employed Canadians in unions. This is particularly evident in the private sector, where unionization rates have declined by 20 per cent over that time. This trend has corresponded with a dramatic increase in the amount of wealth going to the top 10 per cent of income earners here in Canada over the last 30 years.

In March of this year, the International Monetary Fund took note of this strong correlation between unionization and economic equality. In its report, the IMF noted:

. . . we find strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980—2010 . . . thus challenging preconceptions about the channels through which union density affects income distribution.

Given these facts, further hindering unions, which this bill does, should be troublesome to all Canadians. By further weakening unions, we are promoting a race to the bottom in wages for Canadians. Unions are a fundamental force for greater income equality at the national and local level. A union uses its collective bargaining powers to secure decent-wage jobs which can sustain a good standard of living. This is essential for building a strong middle class, which seems to be the political jargon that all parties are using nowadays.

In simple terms, people who have good wages can buy things without over-leveraging themselves in debt. That is good for the household and essential for business growth. We should not support this bill. It further hurts unions, hurts business and hurts our economy.

Senator Ringuette: Will the honourable senator take a few questions?

Senator Eggleton: Absolutely.

Senator Ringuette: Senator, some of our colleagues on the other side have talked much about the political implications of unions. I want to read to you an excerpt from an article dated May 26, 2015. Actually, it’s two different articles. It relates to a lady named Catherine Swift. Many of us know her very well. She is the chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and she was also a member of the C.D. Howe Institute. The article says that in an interview before her resignation was announced at C.D. Howe, Swift declined to reveal the identity of the donors to the organization called Working Canadians, which funded the radio ads, the political ads, the video ads and so forth. This Working Canadians organization, whose donors the chair does not want to name, is one of the proponents, with Merit, of this bill.

How do you feel about Merit Canada and Catherine Swift having put together this organization and not wanting to reveal who the donors are? It’s a tax-free organization also. They don’t want to reveal the donors, and yet they are the proponents of revealing income of $5,000 for hard-working Canadians. How can you justify and ascertain people like that who want to point the finger at hard-working Canadians on the one side, but no, their non-profit, non-tax-paying organization will not say who their donors are. How do you react to that, Senator Eggleton?

Senator Eggleton: I think it’s an excellent example of hypocrisy. Here we have an organization which is out there. It may have an independent name, but it’s obviously there to benefit the Conservative Party. I heard the ads. They attacked Trudeau, just like the Conservative ads do. Now, you can say it might be the NDP, except that Merit Canada happens to be an organization that opposes unions. I think it’s out there for the benefit of the Conservative Party.

But you know what? Why wouldn’t that be revealed? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, don’t they say? Why should we not know that kind of information? To not know it and to just pick on the unions here, and particularly some people who are getting as little as $5,000, as you point out, in pension funds or whatever, I think is just a clear case of hypocrisy.