Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the committee for allowing us to appear today.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada represents 180,000 members. We are the largest union in the federal public service.
Bill C-76 proposes extensive changes that have a significant impact on our democratic process. We strongly support the amendments in the bill that will remove barriers to voting and make it more accessible.
My comments will focus on changes related to third parties.
Our usual election activity is to inform our members about issues and encourage them to exercise their political rights and to vote. We do this by communicating with them in a number of ways, including advertising. During the last federal election and in a number of previous elections, the Public Service Alliance of Canada registered as a third party.
Bill C-76 has not changed the definition of third party election advertising; however, the definition curtails our right to represent our members' interests during an election period. Messages we transmit that can be received or seen by the public, such as information posted on bulletin boards or included in flyers, are considered to be election advertising if they take a position on an issue that a registered party or candidate is associated with or if the message opposes a registered party.
I challenge you to think of an issue that affects Canadians and our members that cannot be associated with a party, leader, or candidate at some time or another. The vast majority of our members are employed by the federal government and by federal agencies controlled or regulated by the government, and we take on issues associated with registered parties on an ongoing basis. It is our role and responsibility to advance their interests and concerns, and our right to do so has been upheld by the courts.
The existing restrictions on third party advertising, the proposed changes to the election period, and the introduction of new pre-election periods deny our legitimate advocacy role. This is particularly crucial when governments attempt to prevent our members from speaking out on issues and to restrict their political rights and activities because they are government employees.
During the last federal election period, we were in the middle of bargaining with Treasury Board for approximately 100,000 members. When we demonstrated against the government's proposals, Elections Canada advised us that the messages on our picket signs and banners might be considered election advertising under the Elections Act. They were seen as transmitting a message to the public during an election period that could be seen as opposing a registered party or speaking out on an issue associated with a registered party—in this case, the previous governing party.
Bill C-76 proposes to extend similar although not identical restrictions during a new pre-election period. The difference is that advertising during the pre-election period excludes messages that take a position on an issue associated with political parties and their candidates or leaders; however, the restrictions could still be interpreted to put limits on what we can say publicly about positions being taken by our government employers.
I refer you to the landmark 1991 Supreme Court case of Lavigne and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. In that decision, the court affirmed the interconnected nature of political activity and union interests, or democratic unionism. The court said that many political activities, “be they concerned with the environment, tax policy, day-care or feminism, can be construed as related to the larger environment in which unions must represent their members”. Note that the court said “must represent their members” in this “larger environment”.
We are also concerned about the unnecessary burden the proposed legislation would put on unions to track and report all advertising expenses between elections. PSAC is a large organization, with 15 relatively autonomous components and over 1,000 locals; however, the third party provision treats us as a single entity. We would now be required to monitor all those parts in order to report expenses related to messages to the public amounting to $10,000 or more between an election and the pre-election period.
In conclusion, we ask the committee to review the proposed sections on third party advertising very carefully before proceeding with the bill so as not to affect the legitimate rights of unions to speak out on behalf of their members. We also ask you to consider splitting the bill and moving quickly to deal with the sections where there is general agreement and support, such as the sections that were originally contained in Bill C-33, and spend more time assessing the changes proposed by Bill C-76 before making other adjustments to the federal elections process.
Thank you for your time.