Labour bill reflects uneven playing field in Ottawa

Stephen Harper’s backdoor assault on the labour movement, delivered through a private member’s bill from an obscure backbencher, has been rightly labelled hypocritical, punitive and an unprecedented invasion of privacy.

Stephen Harper’s backdoor assault on the labour movement, delivered through a private member’s bill from an obscure backbencher, has been rightly labelled hypocritical, punitive and an unprecedented invasion of privacy.

The bill, actually a tax amendment measure known as C-377, has been gutted and rightly been tossed aside as roadkill on the legislative highway.

But it’s back from the dead.

The reason it won’t die is simple — the bill has been orchestrated by Harper’s office and an anti-union lobbyist even if it bears the imprimatur of British Columbia backbencher Russ Hiebert.

Data compiled by the non-profit Canadians for Responsible Advocacy (CFRA) leave no doubt about the access to Harper’s Langevin Block office given to an Ottawa lobbyist — a former employee of Harper’s opposition office — acting on behalf of eight provincial “open shop” construction associations.

An entity known as Merit Canada has driven the legislation and is, Senate Opposition Leader James Cowan alleges, “the true author of this unfortunate legislation.”

The bill would require unions and employee organizations to give the Canada Revenue Agency details of all transactions over $5,000, along with the salaries and benefits of union officials over $100,000 and a detailed breakdown of spending on political and lobbying activities. It would all be publicly posted on the revenue agency’s website.

In June 2013, it hit a wall in the Senate when 16 Conservatives voted with Liberals and backed amendments championed by former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal that all but gutted the bill.

But when Harper prorogued Parliament, the bill, instead of going back to the Commons in amended form, remained in the Upper House, restored to its original form, where it is now up for second reading.

CFRA compiled data revealing the fierce lobbying battle over this legislation, an effort to shed light on who is funding lobbyists in this town. But in this study, it also revealed the uneven paths taken by those on both sides of the bill.

The Merit lobbyist, Terrance Oakey, has a long history with the Progressive Conservative party and its successor Conservative party dating to at least 1999, when he was a special assistant to Joe Clark. He has been a special assistant to the party’s national director, worked in the national party’s communications department and was a researcher in Harper’s opposition office.

Merit is an advocate for an “open shop,” in which workers are not forced to join or financially back unions.

It actively competes against unionized construction crews.

As Merit’s man in Ottawa, Oakey had 117 meetings with public office-holders on the bill since November 2011, but it’s his level of access that sets him apart. He had 13 meetings with Hiebert, but also 12 meetings with Harper’s (since departed) director of stakeholder relations, Alykhan Velshi, as well as a meeting with Rachal Curran, Harper’s director of policy. Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright attended one of the meetings with Hiebert and Velshi. Oakey also had a separate tête-à-tête with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

On the other side, the Canadian Labour Congress says the closest it got to the prime minister’s office in lobbying against the bill was an early 2013 phone conversation between then-president Ken Georgetti and Wright.

Georgetti raised it briefly with the prime minister in an unrelated meeting. The CLC was told there was no time for a face-to-face meeting.

Merit, according to the CFRA, did not disclose its financial statements, major contributors, bylaws, board member or membership policies but Oakey told the Toronto Star that all his funding comes from the eight organizations, with Alberta leading the way, although he put no dollar figure on it.

He also dismissed any suggestion he had preferred access to the PMO and painted himself as a little guy going up against a flying squad of labour lobbyists.

“We believe Canadians should have the ability to figure out who is trying to shape their world and why. The best way to do that is to follow the money,’’ says Nicholas Kyonka, the CEO of the non-profit.

On its path to transparency, his organization has also shone light at the uneven road to power under the Harper government.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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