PMO, anti-organized labour group meet behind closed doors on ‘transparency’ bill

OTTAWA – A Conservative MP who has said his private member’s bill was not part of the government’s agenda has been attending closed-door meetings with senior government players and a vocal anti-organized labour organization – a revelation that is raising red flags among critics.

Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s bill would force unions to open up their books, or risk facing hefty fines.

Merit Canada, an anti-organized labour organization that is a vocal proponent for the bill, has frequently met with senior staff members in the Prime Minister’s Office and at Finance Canada as well as a host of Conservative MPs to discuss Bill C-377, according to records on the Lobbying Commissioner’s website.

Overall, the president of Merit Canada, Terrance Oakey, met with 14 Conservative MPs and senior staff members last month, the database shows.

Information on the meetings has New Democrats wondering why there are so many fingerprints on a private member’s bill.

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“Now we’re wondering who is actually writing this bill,” NDP labour critic Alexandre Boulerice said. “Is it Hiebert? The Prime Minister’s Office? Or even Merit?”

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor Oakey would provide details of conversations that transpired during the meetings.

“As per the Lobbying Act, the subject of meetings are contained in my reports, and beyond that we do not comment on what was discussed in meetings,” Oakey wrote in an email.

Hiebert introduced the bill last year and has since been selling it under the banner of accountability and transparency to the taxpayer.

Hiebert declined an interview request.

At the heart of his proposed legislation is the fact that the public relinquishes hundreds of millions of dollars every year because of the tax exemptions union members receive.

But the bill casts such a wide net, critics argue, it will end up invading workers’ privacy and could even be considered unconstitutional; as the bill is written, any payment exceeding $5,000 — including pensions, salaries and benefits — would have to be publicly disclosed in detailed, annual statements to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Since the bill began making headlines in October 2011, New Democrats have been accusing the government of having its hands in crafting the legislation and using the private member’s bill as a “back door” to push through its agenda – accusations the Conservatives and Hiebert denied.

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“Who really wrote this bill?” Boulerice asked. “Is it truly a private member’s bill?”

Any MP who is not a cabinet minister can introduce a private member’s bill, just as dozens of other MPs including Boulerice have.

“But my bill was my idea, not from the leader’s office,” Boulerice said of his private member’s bill, which examines the rights of pregnant workers. “I had to do my own work … With this (Bill C-377) it’s not clear if it has come from the Prime Minister’s Office or some kind of lobby.”

Hiebert’s private member’s bill has certainly received some high-level attention.

On Oct. 24, Hiebert and Sean Speer, the policy director for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, held a closed-door meeting with the president of Merit Canada. This was one day before Hiebert was called before a committee of MPs to defend his bill.

On Oct. 23, Oakey held three separate meetings – one with Hiebert, another with Calgary MP Michelle Rempel and a third with Speer, Finance Canada’s deputy chief of staff Rossano Bernardi, the prime minister’s chief of staff Nigel Wright and the prime minister’s director of planning Alykhan Velshi. Hiebert was also there.

In an email, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office wrote that the office has also met with the bill’s opponents.

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Still, the Canadian Labour Congress describes the meetings as unprecedented.

“That’s pretty good access, pretty significant access for one group to get,” said Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella organization for dozens of Canadian unions.

“It seems like Merit has a lot of influence on human resource policy and tax policy with this government.”

Oakey, a former Conservative staff member, successfully lobbied the government last year to repeal the Fair Wages and Hours of Work Act, which governed federal contracts and the payment of fair wages.

Georgetti testified at the same committee meeting as Hiebert last month. There, he described the bill as poorly-written and so detailed it would force unions to disclose the medications its members receive under their drug plans.

Hiebert’s bill would also establish a system revealing information about how much time union leaders spend on administrative and political activities.

Also at last month’s meeting, the Canadian Bar Association said it has “serious reservations about the bill,” citing privacy concerns, potential costs to unions and the federal government, and constitutional concerns.

“In particular, the requirements that the labour organization file a statement detailing its disbursements for political activities, lobbying activities, organizing activities and collective bargaining activities could be unconstitutional,” three representatives wrote in the association’s submission to the committee.

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The CBA and Canadian Labour Congress have both said they fail to see the public policy reasons behind the bill.

“What it seeks to accomplish is a mystery,” Georgetti said.

Oakey will be testifying his opinion on the Bill C-377 Wednesday in front of the House of Commons finance committee.

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