Thursday, 27 June 2013

Bill C-377 sent back to the House

Many Canadians are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the Senate should be dismantled. Still others aren’t sure why there’s a Senate in the first place. The job of the Senate is to provide sober second thought on proposed Bills and legislative changes of the government and in a rare move it recently acted in ways that may convince some that it’s more than a stodgy, obsolete institution. Love or hate the Senate, this week they did their job.

Yesterday, after vigorous debate, the Senate voted in favour of amendments to Bill C-377 proposed by Conservative Senator Hugh Segal. Segal and others who supported the amendments have from the beginning seen the bill for exactly what it is - an assault on unions.

In addition to the general injustice of the Bill’s targeting of unions, Segal and other Senators had opined that Bill C-377 was unconstitutional. There was great concern that the Bill stepped on the toes of Provincial governments which, with some exceptions, generally have exclusive jurisdiction over labour relations within their own borders[1].  MacLean’s magazine reports that Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin even challenged his colleagues “…to explain how the bill was not a direct infringement on provincial jurisdiction over labour.”[2] So far there hasn’t been a convincing explanation.

In the end, 49 Senators voted for the proposed amendments. Thirty-three Senators voted in support of the Bill as is[3]. Sixteen Conservative Senators broke with their Conservative colleagues and supported the amendments.

The amendments passed by the Senate raise the disclosure threshold for union salaries from $100,000 to $441,661 and the reporting limit for contributions to labour relations activities from $5,000 to $150,000. The amendments also provide additional protections for smaller unions, creating a requirement that the bill would only apply to those unions with greater than 50,000 members.

Liberal Senator James Cowan has commented that the obvious preference was to defeat the bill entirely, but since they didn’t have the numbers in the Senate to do that, the next best option was to “gut the bill.” Russ Hiebert, the Conservative MP who introduced Bill C-377, appeared to agree that the bill was successfully gutted. He lamented the amendments, saying they made the bill “useless”[4]. One can only hope.

The amendments to the bill will go back to the House in the fall for consideration. With these amendments MPs will have the summer to conduct their own sober second thoughts on the bill. The summer will also provide organized labour another chance to contact their MPs and have their voices heard.

While the Prime Minister’s Office has expressed its continued support for the bill, this vote in the Senate may have exposed cracks in the Conservatives’ usually iron-clad grip on members of its party. We hope the Senate debate will inspire MPs to listen to the will of the people and reconsider their support for this monstrously unfair bill. If the MPs listen to the people the only conclusion to reach is that the bill should not only be gutted but cast into oblivion and forgotten.

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