In his stirring and memorable speech in the Senate yesterday, Senior Conservative Senator Hugh Segal didn’t say anything that hasn’t already be said by newspaper columnists, academics, unions, the Canadian Bar Association, and many others.
However, the fact that it was a respected Conservative pointing out that recent attacks against unions by the Federal Conservatives are little more politically motivated, transparent attempts to silence dissent is very striking.
Read Senator Segal’s speech from Senate yesterday here. It makes for great reading, and probably will be quoted for years to come.
He was speaking about Bill C-377, which is the private member’s bill that singles out unions as the only organization in Canada that would be required to publicly disclose every single purchase made over $5000, as well as the precise amount of time spent on something called “political activities” by every union employee. I’ve talked about the Bill before.
Here’s some quotes from Conservative Senator Segal:
On the waste of taxpayer money, and Canada Revenue Agency personnel:
Dispatching CRA to police how trade unions spend their money, in denominations of $5,000 or more, is to increase the role of CRA and of the state in ways that create a bigger, nosier and more expensive government. As a taxpayer and as a Conservative, I oppose that kind of increase in any government’s power or expenditures.
At the disclosure level that is now in the bill — $5,000 — a two- year supply of coffee, a used car, a new computer system or printer, or the replacement of plumbing or a boiler at a union headquarters would qualify for explicit disclosure. Is this all that CRA has to do? Do we want to take people who might be working on tax evasion and have them assess which union local bought a new boiler for its headquarters? That is what this bill would produce….
Have we decided that CRA has lots of employees with little to do? When did that meeting happen? Who came to that conclusion? To manage the new nosey mission, CRA would need new employees and up to $2.5 million in operating funds, plus an extra $800,000 a year. That is CRA’s own estimate. The Parliamentary Budget Officer says the number will be much higher.
On the discrimination of singling out only one type of association, trade unions, who the Tories want to silence from political debate:
If this is to apply to trade unions, why would it not apply to rotary clubs, the Fraser Institute, Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations across Canada, the Council of Chief Executives, local car dealers or the many farming groups, like the cattlemen’s associations or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, all of whom do great work? How about local constituency associations, food banks, soup kitchens, or anglers and hunters clubs?
All of these groups express views on policy. All have the right, under election law, to volunteer in municipal, provincial or federal elections, and all come to Ottawa to lobby and press government on issues important to them. They do so along with representatives of the defence industry, our First Nations and various cultural groups. Are they all to be swept into the CRA bureaucratic remit? That is what this bill would lead to. If CRA is to become the political judge of what expenses are appropriate, what are the guiding criteria? The bill is silent on that….
Honourable senators, this bill is about a nanny state; it has an anti-labour bias running rampant; and it diminishes the imperative of free speech, freedom of assembly and free collective bargaining.
I imagine that, were it to pass, subsequent legislation from the other place from private members might be aimed at newspapers; networks, TV and otherwise; student groups; universities; junior baseball leagues; and even, God forbid, community soccer. Where we are headed with this bill is down a dark alley to a very dark place indeed.
If the unions should disclose, so should the auto dealers, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, all the local Legions and all of the various local organizations.
On the importance of unions having strong rights to participate in political debate free from state interference:
As a Tory, I believe that society prospers when different views about the public agenda, on the left and the right, are advanced by different groups, individuals and interests. Debate between opposing groups in this chamber, in the other place and in broader society is the essence of democracy. Limiting that debate as to scope and breadth is never in the long-term interest of a free and orderly society…
Honourable senators, the very growth of Canada, the successive waves of immigrants from the British Isles that built Canada in the early days, depended in some measure on protecting legitimate union rights. Honourable senators, they did so then and they do now.
On why the Conservative government’s plan to force unions to provide free services to non-members (right to work laws–see my discussion here) that the Tories are expected to move on next is un-Canadian:
The negative effect of this bill, either in deploying CRA on political missions or on limiting freedoms, is debilitating and offensive. The bill before us today, as well as right-to-work legislation that is being proposed in the other place as a private member’s bill, is not who we are as Canadians. It is time this chamber said so.
On why taxation law should not be used to regulate political speech, and why laws that do govern political activities should apply across the political perspective, and not just to a particular government’s political opponents:
Honourable senators, I know union leaders whom I dislike and do not trust. Some have been mean, narrow, divisive and unconstructive, but I defend their right to advance what they consider to be their members’ interests. I know corporate, political and not-for-profit leaders who suffer from the same faults. As for soft-sounding, labour-financed coalitions that campaign against Conservatives at various points in provincial elections, we have seen that. It is the election laws that should be changed to limit anybody’s right to do so on the right or the left without spending limits and full, timely disclosure, not the Income Tax Act of Canada. This is a matter of election law, not CRA inquisition.
In the interests of free, collective bargaining; strong, competitive environments; safe workplaces; and the fair treatment of working men and women, socially, economic and politically, this bill should be either readily revamped or set aside. If it has been quoted on other matters in this place that “the best social policy is a job,” then people who seek union support in the workplace — as is their right in a free society — should be protected, and the unions who serve them should not be singled- out unfairly
Senator Segal cuts to the chase here when he argues that this law is about punishing the Conservative Party’s political foe–unions, and little else. He notes that once we allow governments to start misuing the law to try and silence their political opponents, democracy and freedom of expression dies. That is an apolitical observation, and at the root of his dire and memorable warning: “Where we are headed with this bill is down a dark alley to a very dark place indeed.”
Questions for Discussion
Why do you think that a Senior Conservative party member would chose to make such a public and thoughtful condemndation of his own party’s legislative actions?
Do these arguments against Bill C-377 and “right to work” laws seem more convincing when made by a Conservative Senator than when made by unions and academics?
Do you think Senator Segal’s shot across the bow to his own party will slow Harper and Tim Hudak’s big plans to silence and undermine unions?
Do you agree with his arguments?