OTTAWA — Diane Bellemare is urging the discredited Senate to find redemption by doing its constitutional duty as the parliamentary chamber that represents the regions.
The Conservative senator is waging a one-woman crusade within the Senate’s government caucus to block C-377, a private member’s bill that would force labour unions to publicly disclose how they spend their money.
And she’s using the scandal over senators’ expenses to make her case.
The controversial bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert and backed strongly by the Prime Minister’s Office, 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 and it’s opposed by at least five provinces, who’ve argued that the bill is an unconstitutional intrusion into provincial jurisdiction over labour laws.
If senators want to reclaim some relevance in the midst of the current crisis, Bellemare maintains they need to represent the interests of their provinces and vote against C-377.
“I would like to say that, at this difficult time when the Senate is being accused on all sides of not playing its role as a chamber of sober second thought, and of not taking the interests of the people it represents seriously, I urge you to vote in line with your constitutional obligations, the official positions of your respective governments, in other words, the provincial governments and the people they represent, and all of the emails you received that have criticized this bill as being too invasive,” she implored her colleagues last week.
It’s a lonely battle for Bellemare, who has found little support for her arguments in her own caucus, although Liberal senators are behind her.
She had more company two years ago, when 16 Conservative senators broke ranks, joining forces with the Liberals to send the bill back to the House of Commons with amendments that effectively eviscerated the legislation.
However, Parliament was prorogued before the Commons could consider the amendments and, in accordance with the rules for reinstating legislation following prorogation, the bill wound up back in the upper chamber in its original form.
The unamended bill is now before the Senate for final debate, with Bellemare and the Liberals using every procedural trick available to run out the clock until the chamber adjourns for the summer, likely this week. With Parliament set to be dissolved for the fall election before the Senate can resume, failure to pass the bill before the summer break would kill it.
Ditto if the bill were to be amended again by the Senate. The Commons has already adjourned for the summer and would never get the chance to consider amendments.
Bellemare tried several weeks ago to have the bill ruled out of order. That failed.
She then proposed an amendment to exempt all labour unions not under federal jurisdiction, which would have exempted about 90 per cent of them. That amendment was defeated last week.
“Personally, in the midst of this crisis, I try to focus on my main mandate, which is to defend the interests of the population of my province,” the Quebec senator said in an interview, noting that her province is among those that have objected to the bill.
Were it to pass, Bellemare is convinced the bill would eventually be tossed out by the Supreme Court. All the more reason, she believes, for the Senate to do its duty as the chamber of sober second thought.
“We are a legislative body and when we see that things are wrong, it’s our role to not agree,” she said.
Bellemare feels she’s done what she can to kill the bill but she’s hopeful the minority Liberals have a plan up their sleeves.
Since debate can’t be limited on private member’s bills in the Senate, the Liberal plan appears to be simple: talk C-377 to death.