Liberals, Conservatives brace for Senate battle on controversial anti-union bill

A bill that would force unions to disclose how they spend their money has been stalled in the Senate for days as Liberal senators conduct a filibuster they say they're prepared to continue until Parliament is dissolved for this fall's election.
A bill to force to unions to disclose how they spend their money is tying up the Senate in its final week before the summer break. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

If at first you don't succeed, change the rules of the game.

That's the principle Conservatives seem to have adopted in the Senate as they try to force passage of a controversial bill that would require labour unions to publicly disclose how they spend their money.

Bill C-377 has been stalled for days as Liberal senators conduct a filibuster they're prepared to continue, if necessary, until Parliament is dissolved for this fall's election, thereby killing the legislation.

But on Thursday, the government's deputy leader in the Senate, Yonah Martin, gave notice of a motion aimed at cutting off debate and forcing a final vote on the bill, likely early next week.

However, Senate rules allow the government to limit debate only on government business, not on private member's bills such as the union disclosure bill.

Martin tried a similar move just two years ago — to cut off debate on the proposed suspensions of disgraced senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — and was slapped down by Noel Kinsella, then Senate Speaker.

"To allow a process that could result in the application of the government's time allocation powers to non-government business is not in keeping with the current rules and practices," Kinsella ruled.

Acceding to the government's bid to expand its debate-limiting powers would "distort the basic structure of Senate business" and have "profound effects on how the Senate works in future," he added.

In the wake of that ruling, the Conservatives last fall proposed changing the rules to allow the governing party to cut short debate on private member's business. But the proposal was allowed to languish so nothing has changed since Kinsella's ruling.

'Dictatorship of the majority'

Martin's motion to cut short debate on C-377, a private member's bill sponsored by Conservative backbencher Russ Hiebert and strongly backed by the Prime Minister's Office, is to be considered Friday.

Conservative MP Russ Hiebert first introduced his private member's bill in 2012.

James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, said he intends to ask the new Speaker, Leo Housakos, to rule it out of order, in keeping with his predecessor's ruling.

"I find it outrageous that they would even try to do this," Cowan said in an interview.

Should Housakos rule the motion out of order, Liberals suspect the Conservatives are prepared to use their majority to overrule the Speaker — who is a fellow Conservative — and force a final vote on C-377.

"It would mean ... dictatorship of the majority," warned Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal, a procedural expert.

"The rule of law has to prevail. That's how a mature, civilized country and a real democracy operates."

Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, did not answer directly when asked if he'll respect whatever ruling Housakos makes on the matter. He deemed that a hypothetical question.

He insisted that the move to cut off debate is entirely within the rules.

"For me, I don't have any hesitation that it's in compliance with the rules," Carignan said, contending that the circumstances this time are different than those on which Kinsella ruled two years ago.

"I think that we've spent a lot of time, (heard) a lot of ... evidence, that we have enough information to vote. So what we want, it's a vote."

Hassan Yussuf, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, blasted the Conservatives for throwing the rules out the window in their zeal to pursue what he deemed an ideological vendetta against labour unions.

"They have no intention of abiding by any rules. They make the rules up as they go along," Yussuf said in an interview, adding that the latest turn of events "speaks volumes (about) the hatred and venom which this government spews every day" against labour unions.

The bill would require unions to publicly disclose any spending of $5,000 or more and any salary of more than $100,000. It's been widely denounced as undemocratic and an invasion of privacy.

As of Thursday, when Alberta's new NDP government weighed in, seven provinces have objected that the bill is an unconstitutional intrusion into provincial jurisdiction over labour laws.


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