Something quite extraordinary occurred yesterday in the Senate of Canada. The Canadian Senate approved a bi-partisan set of amendments effectively gutting a Conservative sponsored Private Member’s Bill dealing with union transparency. What I find so interesting about this development is that it was a bi-partisan resolution (with sixteen Conservative Senators teaming up with their Liberal brethren) and that it happened notwithstanding the Government’s strong support for this Private Member’s Bill.
Bill C-377 in its original form would have required labour organizations to disclose every salary and cheque they write over $5,000. Amendments made at the Finance Committee raised the disclosure bar for union paid salaries to $100,000. I voted against this amended legislation at Third Reading. Although I unequivocally support the principle that members of a union are entitled to know how their club spends the dues they provide it, it has never been made clear to me why non-members of the club are similarly entitled to this information. The tax deductibility of dues argument doesn’t cut it for me, because tax deducted dollars are in fact not “public dollars.” By definition, money not subject to government taxation is private monies. Moreover, if these funds were public money, this concept would have to be made to apply to professional organizations, industry associations and certainly political parties, all of which are funded on contributions deducted from the taxes payable by the party cutting the cheque.
What is even more troubling for me is that the Conservative Government, elected in 2006 on a platform of transparency and accountability, supports disclosure of union employee salaries at a benchmark of $100,000 but was opposed to my Private Member’s Bill (C-461) which would have required specific salary disclosure for federal public servants at a benchmark of $188,000. Readers of this blog will undoubtedly recall that my former caucus colleagues on the Access and Ethics Committee were instructed to eviscerate C-461 and raise the specific salary disclosure bar to $444,000. How Langevin Block can support union salary disclosure at $100,000 but oppose civil servant salary disclosure at almost double that amount remains a mystery. How can one possibly argue that the tax deductibility of dues creates a greater public interest in salary disclosure than the obvious public interest in the salary disclosure of federal public servants paid with genuine public dollars?
It is only when political considerations cloud objective analysis of policy that such an inconsistency can be reconciled. All too frequently the political brain trust at PMO prevails over the policy analysts. Politicos see no inconsistency between protecting the privacy of all federal public servants at or below the Deputy Minister level, while concurrently requiring union organizers earning 22.5% of what a top mandarin can make to disclose salaries (on a public website no less). Langevin Block’s “Transparency Action Plan” is made to apply everywhere except in its own back yard.
Enter the Chamber of Sober Second Thought. Constitutionally empowered to vet legislation but embroiled in expense scandals and generally thought to be composed of party lapdogs, the Senate did something quite remarkable.
It took a big stick and stuck it directly in the PMO’s eye.
Citing the inaptly named “Rathgeber Principle,” the Senate approved raising the salary bar for union disclosure to $444,000! They also raised the expense disclosure bar to $150,000. Furthermore, they made all of it meaningless by stating that the entire bill only applies to large unions with over 50,000 members. Nobody can seriously believe that salary disclosure at 444K constitutes transparency or meaningful disclosure. The Government Leader in the Senate, the Honorable Marjory LeBreton, referred to this Senatorial behavior as “mischievous.”
The renegade CPC Senators, however, were making a couple of important points. First, similar to a certain former Caucus colleague, they demonstrated that they think of themselves as something more than merely the PMO’s lackeys. Equally importantly, they demonstrated quite emphatically that a salary disclosure bar at above $440,000 is completely pointless. Certainly the Government cannot justify greater salary disclosure for private unions (with closed membership) than it can for federal public servants, whose salaries are paid for by all taxpayers.
I trust that the irony is not lost on the Prime Minister’s Office!