Kelly-Gagnon

Unions, like Senate, need more transparency

Michel Kelly-Gagnon.

By Michel Kelly-Gagnon

Members of Brantford District Labour Council affiliates march on MP Phil McColeman's office on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, to protest Bill C-377. (CHRISTOPHER SMITH/QMI Agency)

Members of Brantford District Labour Council affiliates march on MP Phil McColeman's office on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, to protest Bill C-377. (CHRISTOPHER SMITH/QMI Agency)

There is a basic truth at the heart of our public institutions: Transparency breeds accountability.

Any individual or organization that knows their expenditures will be publicly available for anyone to review is likely to be far more cautious about their spending habits.

And conversely, closed elites who can use their funds to further their interests without scrutiny from the public or their members are more likely to cut corners. We are being reminded of this basic truth almost every day.

In Quebec, the corruption scandal involving municipal and provincial politicians goes on and on, leading to the arrest of the mayors of Laval and Montreal these past weeks.

Meanwhile, Ottawa has been rocked by an expense scandal involving senators. The RCMP is investigating if there was wrongdoing in the Prime Minister’s Office, while the auditor general is poised to review the expenses of all senators.

It is ironic, therefore, that at the same time this is happening, some senators mounted a vociferous challenge to Bill C-377 (which was debated last night).

The law would require unions to file annual public reports on their financial statements, top salaried employees, the amount of time spent on lobbying and political activities, and expenditures over $5000.

Union leaders collect more than $4 billion a year from unionized workers, which, under the Rand formula, is the equivalent of a power to tax.

They can spend that money as they see fit, with little reporting requirements to their own members and none to the general public.

Both Conservative and Liberal senators have cited opening the books on Senate expenses as a tool to restore accountability and win back the public trust.

Why, then, do Liberal senators and some of their Conservative colleagues reject that same philosophy for unions?

Without transparency, accountability and the public trust are threatened.

It is a broader systemic issue, not one confined to any particular organization.

It is also difficult to understand why union leaders oppose this legislation since it would strengthen the public trust invested in their organizations.

Union leaders should look to the Senate for reasons why they should embrace transparency.

And senators should look to the recent experience of their own institution to recognize why other bodies that are invested with the public trust — like unions — need to embrace this principle as well.

As Bill C-377 is debated, all senators who believe in the principle that transparency breeds accountability should stand in favour of it.

— Kelly-Gagnon is president of Montreal Economic Institute (iedm.org). The opinions expressed here are his own.


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