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B.C. MP Russ Hiebert.

Bill Graveland

A federal bill that would force unions to disclose some staff salaries still goes too far, in spite of amendments meant to address criticism, the privacy commissioner says.

Bill C-377 – a private members bill introduced by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert – passed through the House of Commons on Wednesday with a 147-135 third-reading vote. Five Conservative MPs voted against it.

The legislation would require unions to disclose financial information to Revenue Canada – including identifying staff and directors who are paid more than $100,000 – which would then be made public. Wednesday's amendments raised the reporting threshold to $100,000 from $5,000 in response to concerns that releasing such private information is not appropriate. But a spokesperson for Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said the changes are not enough.

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"We believe these are positive amendments and a step in the right direction for privacy. However, we continue to have privacy concerns," Valerie Lawton said.

The commissioner had previously told MPs the existing exceptional circumstances in which governments disclose salaries that are directly funded by the public do not create a precedent for labour groups because they do not pay their employees directly from public funds.

"I think this is a significant privacy intrusion, and it seems highly disproportionate," Ms. Stoddart said of the bill as originally written.

Supporters of the bill say the disclosures are warranted because unions get generous tax breaks.

Some predict the new rules would expose fraud and corruption in Canada's labour movement.

Merit Canada, a four-year-old organization representing non-unionized construction workers, is lobbying hard in favour of the bill. The organization submitted a report to MPs claiming union disclosure rules in Australia and the United States led to explosive revelations of wrongdoing.

In Australia, a Labor MP left caucus after a government report said he had spent roughly $6,000 of union funds on prostitutes when he was a labour leader before entering politics. The U.S. Department of Labour reported more than 900 criminal convictions between 2001 and 2008, largely connected to the embezzlement of union funds.

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"I think we'll have a much more open and transparent system when it comes to union finances," Merit Canada president Terrance Oakey said. "This will give people confidence that those [union] dues are being spent for the purposes that were envisioned … and I think [it] will give Canadians greater confidence in their labour organizations."

A spokesperson for unionized construction workers said Merit wants the financial information to undermine confidence in unions. Merit rejects the accusation.

Now the bill goes to the Senate, where Merit and the Canadian Labour Congress have already been lobbying.

Labour groups warn the bill would create runaway costs akin to the now defunct federal gun registry, claiming the compliance costs for Revenue Canada are being understated.

The CRA has estimated the new requirements would cost the agency about $2.4-million over the first two years – with 22 additional full time staff – and then $800,000 per year and eight full time staff after that.

But the Parliamentary Budget Officer has questioned that estimate and told the finance committee the costs could be much higher depending on how many organizations are required to submit reports.

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"It's going to be really costly to Canadians," said NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice, adding that the bill will cost Ottawa $90-million over three years and would likely be an unconstitutional intrusion into provincial affairs. "It's going to solve no problem at all."

 

Five Conservative MPs voted against Bill C-377, a private members bill that had the support of the government.

Mike Allen, Tobique-MactaQuac, NB

Brent Rathgeber, Edmonton-St. Albert, Alta.

Patricia Davidson, Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.

Ben Lobb, Huron-Bruce, Ont.

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Rodney Weston, Saint John, NB

Mr. Rathgeber said before the vote that he did not think there was a public interest in having the federal government reveal the expenses of unions.

Bill Curry

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