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Budget Implementation Bill, 2017 - Third Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-63, A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 22, 2017 and other measures. The bill returns to this chamber following study by the National Finance Committee, but I do not think any members of that committee can honestly say they understand fully the consequences of passing Bill C-63.

There are a number of technical changes that we do not know enough about, and there are other measures where the outcome is too uncertain and where the government’s plan lacks detail. I will talk about just three of the measures laid out in this 317-page bill.

First, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. I went into those committee hearings knowing a bit about this China-led institution and feeling a certain degree of unease about Canada’s eagerness to participate. I finished the committee hearings knowing a lot more about it, but my unease remains.

First, it is not even clear how much money Canadian taxpayers will be handing over. In his testimony before the committee, the Minister of Finance said Canada’s commitment would be US$199 million or C$256 million. He was quick to correct anyone who said otherwise, underscoring that $199 million is the only share available since Canada was not a founding member of the bank.

However, Bill C-63 uses a different number. On page 239, the bill authorizes the Minister of Finance to make a payment up to US$375 million or “any greater amount that is specified in an appropriation Act.” That’s a vastly different number, almost C$500 million and maybe more. Why the discrepancy? To give the minister flexibility if more shares become available for purchases, we were told.

In essence, this bill gives the minister a blank cheque when it comes to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and what are we getting for our money? Again, it’s not entirely clear. Neither the minister nor his officials could provide an answer beyond the most superficial of talking points — a seat at the table, an investment in a regional relationship, an opportunity to diversify our trade, a way to ensure our values are reflected in the projects funded. These were the things we were told, but those so-called benefits are hypothetical at best.

We were told that becoming a member will allow Canadian companies to bid on contracts. But we were also told that the bank has an open bidding process, which means any company can bid, whether or not it is based in a member country. For instance, the U.S. and Japan did not choose to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and they could well bid against us. Which is it? Both cannot be true.

Here is what we know: China will have by far the greatest influence over the bank with nearly 30 per cent of the shares. Canada is buying a share of less than 1 per cent. Nine of the 12 seats on the board of directors must be held by Asian countries. So will we have a seat at the table? Maybe the kids’ table.

What else do we know? We know that China is a repressive state run by a leader who has just consolidated his power. We know that China does not believe in transparency. It conducts industrial espionage and steals intellectual property. And we know that once the money is sent to Beijing, it is not coming back. There is no return on investments for investors. Any profits go back to the bank.

Meanwhile, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an opportunity to truly diversify our trading relationship and reach into Asian markets, is sitting there and waiting for Canada to sign on.

I would like to move on to another part of Bill C-63 that raises serious concerns: the amendments to the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act to allow the Minister of Finance to enter into taxation agreements for cannabis. We are being asked to give after-the-fact permission, since the federal government and the provinces reached an agreement this week on the division of revenue, but that is just one step into this journey. Nowhere were municipalities talked about or even given a share of the tax pie, but that is all to come.

If there was ever a policy that required sober second thought, it is the government’s approach to the legalization of cannabis. The compressed time frame for the committee’s study did not allow for adequate consideration of this section of the bill.

But we did hear from representatives of francophone municipalities in New Brunswick, and they were very clear about three things. First, they have not been consulted as legalization has been rolled out, despite the fact that much of the burden will fall on their shoulders.

Second, any conversation about the sharing of tax revenue needs to reflect the needs of municipalities.

Third, this process is being unduly rushed and there is no chance that provinces or municipalities will be ready for the July 1 legalization deadline.

Police need to be trained. Equipment for screening impaired drivers needs to be purchased. Zoning laws need to be examined and revised. All of this is taking place in a vacuum because the legislation is only now before Parliament, and there are no associated regulations.

The committee was also reminded by Derrick Hynes, Executive Director of FETCO, which represents federally regulated employers in the transportation and communications industry, that there has been little discussion over the impact of cannabis legalization on the workplace, particularly in the transportation industry. We are talking about pilots, railway engineers, truckers and heavy equipment operators.

Cameron Friesen, the Minister of Finance for the Province of Manitoba, pleaded for more time. He said:

This process has been rushed.

The federal government has not taken the time:

. . . to make sure everyone understands their obligations.

The testimony of Finance Department officials on cannabis taxation did little to reassure members of the committee that the government has the foggiest notion of what it is getting into. The committee was told the government didn’t have a revenue projection of the proposed tax, an answer I find questionable at best.

The federal government seemed focused on keeping the self-imposed political deadline, rather than concentrating on what should be the primary consideration, which is public safety.

I would like to close with a few words about the changes to the Canada Labour Code contained in Bill C-63. There are three significant changes proposed. Federally regulated employees are being given the right to request flexible work arrangements. New unpaid leave provisions are being created — three days for family responsibility, up to 10 days for the victims of family violence, and up to five days for traditional Aboriginal practices, such as hunting and fishing. The bill also expands bereavement leave from three paid days to five, though the latter two are unpaid.

Finally, there are various changes regarding overtime, work schedules and shift changes. Traditionally, changes to the Canada Labour Code and government bills are proposed following tripartite discussions between the government, organized labour and representative of employers. Anthony Giles, Assistant Deputy Minister at Employment and Social Development Canada, said that process was followed in the case. To quote Mr. Giles:

. . . all of these proposals came out of an extensive consultation process with employers, employees, groups who are specialists in the area of work-life balance, with NGOs that represent people in the caregiving industry and so on, and fundamentally the policy object is to balance the needs of employees with the needs of employers.

Mr. Giles also told the committee that there will be no significant cost to employers. But FETCO, the employers’ group that is normally part of this process, told the committee they were not consulted on the new leave days or on the changes to overtime and shift schedules. In fact, they were surprised to see them in the bill, and Mr. Hynes, of FETCO, noted that there will be a cost to bring in other staff on overtime to accommodate someone who has decided to take the day off to go fishing, for example. These costs will no doubt be higher than they need to be since the employee is not required to provide any notice.

Like so much of what this government does, the changes to the Canada Labour Code have been proposed with little consideration of the economic consequences to the economic sector. So there are big problems with this bill.

I don’t believe we have uncovered them all either since the officials, who were the primary witnesses in the committee’s study of Bill C-63, repeatedly responded to substantive questions with talking points. On very few occasions were we provided with details on the costs or revenues associated with these measures.

The government, in proposing many of these initiatives in Bill C-63, is asking Parliament to sign a blank cheque. I, for one, am not prepared to do that and will be voting against this bill.

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