It’s easy enough to demonstrate that Bill C-377 is a ridiculous, partisan, waste of taxpayer money designed simply to punish, disadvantage, and hopefully silence unions, a political thorn in the Conservative’s side. Just ask a Conservative supporter of the Bill why tax policy should require unions to disclose far more information about their activities and employees than any other organization, including charities, corporations, churches, and dues collecting professional associations. They have no answer, because there can’t be one beyond ‘we really dislike unions’.
The reason can’t be that the federal tax department needs to protect union members, who have a right to know where their dues are spent. Protecting union member’s right to know how unions spend their dues revenues isn’t a matter for federal tax law. It’s a provincial labour law matter. Provincial laws already regulate what information unions have to disclose to members. If you think there should be more or less information disclosed, then talk to your provincial MPP, not the taxman. Bill C-377 doesn’t have anything to do with the relationship between unions and their members. The Tories are pretending that it has to do with the use of ‘tax dollars’, and therefore is a matter for federal tax law. Since unions and union members receive tax breaks, the public (not union members) have a right to know how unions spend their money and how union employees spend their time. Follow?
So it is about governing an organization that receives a tax benefit or taxpayer funded subsidies. You know who else receives tax benefits and taxpayer funded subsidies? Just about every organization in Canada: charities, corporations, churches, and dues collecting associations, for example. As a taxpayer, I directly or indirectly fund all those organizations, not just unions. So the challenge for supporters of C-377 is why just unions? Why are they so special that they need to disclose way more information than any other organization that receives tax deductions or tax exemptions? There can be no sensible tax-based policy answer to that. Either we think organizations that receive government support in the form of tax subsidies or exemptions or public funding should be required to report everything found in Bill C-377, or we don’t. Once you try to justify why unions should have to disclose way more information than those other organizations, you just look stupid. Tax dollars are tax dollars after all. As a taxpayer, I’m way more interested in how much I am subsiding wealthy executives and corporations who claim tax deductions for $500 bottles of wine, first class travel, and corporate boxes at Leaf games than I am in how much some union paid for their new office furniture last year. Yet there is no government website where I can see a breakdown of how much corporations spend on entertainment and first class travel. The public has no right to know that information.
Nevertheless, the Conservative’s standard talking point has been that Bill C-377 simply imposes the same reporting obligations on unions as already apply to charities. That is so obviously untrue that you have to assume the Conservatives know they are deliberately misleading the public and they just don’t care. I had an exchange a couple of years ago (this is how long the Conservatives have been trying to push this Bill through) with Senator Eaton, another Conservative Senator who defended Bill C377 as a simple extension of reporting requirements that already apply to charities. Senator Eaton wrote in a letter to me:
The Income Tax Act has required charities … to publicly report on their finances for the past thirty-six years. All one need do to review this information is to do a Google search of “CRA Charities” to see reports from any of these charities and others.
In my post back to Senator Eaton, I pointed out that charities are required to report no where near what Bill C-377 would require of unions. As an example, I used the charitable filings of the Fraser Institute as an example to show how little reporting is actually required of a charity in Canada. It disclosed nothing near what unions would need to publish under Bill C-377.
As a public service, I actually re-drafted the Bill a while back to assist the government in understanding what the law would look like if it actually treated unions like other organizations that receive tax benefits and public subsidies, including corporations and charities. Since that is what the Conservatives claim they are trying to achieve, I thought I’d help, since their legislative drafter must have got lost along the way. Here’s my draft Bill, by the way. I was shocked that Bill C-377 was revived in its original form and not as my re-drafted bill! The reason you know I am being sarcastic is that no politician would ever consider making corporations disclose what Bill C-377 will require of unions. Corporations and charities too would go ballistic with claims about over-regulation and the nanny state, and they would be correct. If you add other organizations to Bill C-377, you can easily see how ridiculous and punitive the reporting requirements in it are.
This week, another in a line of Prime Minister Harper’s plum Conservative Senate appointees, Donald Plett, engaged in an insulting (really unbelievable) exchange with Paul Cavalluzzo in Senate hearings into Bill C-377. Mr. Cavalluzzo is one of Canada’s most respected lawyers, a recipient of both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. Senator Plett, on the other hand, was awarded the Senate gig by Harper for being a loyal Conservative Party solider for years. Plett asks Mr. Cavalluzzo if unions should be required to disclose as much information as charities, to which Cavalluzzo makes the correct and frankly obvious response that Bill C-377 imposes much more onerous reporting requirements on unions than is required of charities. Plett then loses his mind, and insults the Order of Canada recipient. Watch this disgusting display from a sitting Senator:
Wow. Well, Plett does seem to fit in nicely with the quality of Senators Mr. Harper has appointed.
Bill C-377 is a private member’s bill initially brought forward by a guy named Russ Hiebert, a Conservative back-bencher who has now quit politics. It was shot down last year by the Senate, of all places, because of a boatload of concerns raised by almost everyone who is not a lapdog Conservative or antiunion lobbyist. Even prominent, level-minded Conservatives decried the Bill as a blatant attempt to punish a political foe and a mind boggling waste of taxpayer money and Canada Revenue resources.
I’ve written about Bill C-377 lots of times. It requires unions to disclose every payment over $5000, and union employees to report how many minutes they spend on “political activities”, whatever that means. Its purpose is to bog down unions in red tape, provide employers (including public sector employers) with information they can use in collective bargaining, and to provide antiunion lobbyists with reams of information to comb through to find some basis for criticizing how unions spend their money. What it is NOT about is regulating the relationship between unions and their members, since that is a provincial matter already regulated by the provinces.
The Tories have to pretend this is a tax law so it becomes a federal matter. So they claim the Bill just brings unions in line with charities. Paul Cavalluzzo was just pointing that truth out, and Senator Plett lost his mind. Heaven forbid that an obvious truth conflict with the Conservative talking points.
Question for Discussion
Same question many of us have asked all along:
Is there any principled TAX policy reason (i.e. not based on mistrust of unions, or an attempt to silence, inconvenience, or impose costs on unions. or to give employer an advantage in bargaining) why tax law should be used to impose on unions, and ONLY unions, a requirement to report every expense over $5000 and every minute an employee spends on “political activities”?
I haven’t heard one yet.