Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak in the debate following the comments from the member for Simcoe—Grey, who we all welcome to the House, and, as well, my colleague and friend from Acadie—Bathurst, who gave a particularly eloquent and forceful address to the House this morning.
In looking at the legislation and hearing the debate, it is hard to avoid the sense that we are caught in this almost absurd situation where the government's narrative and description of itself is that it alone stands between the Canadian people and chaos. It says that if it were not for the bill, the Canadian economy would be brought instantly to its knees, the fragile economic recovery, which is the phrase the Conservatives use over and over again, would be smashed on the floor to smithereens. It says that this legislation, and this legislation alone, which protects pensioners, workers, charities and all those institutions so important to the country, would provide this protection.
That is the morality play on one side. In response, the Conservatives brought in back to work legislation, but it is back to work legislation with a real difference.
For my friends in the House, and particularly my friends in the New Democratic Party, I do not think there is a government, either federally or provincially of whatever political stripe, whether it is of any political stripe, that has not, at one point or another, had to bring in back to work legislation in order to protect the public interest. I have not heard members of the NDP in opposition ever say that they would consider doing such a thing, but I can assure them that at the provincial level, the NDP governments of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia have had to bring in back to work legislation from time to time.
That is not the cardinal sin we are talking about here. No government in the country can ignore the public interest, which is impossible to ignore. Any party that trumpets itself as wanting or aspiring to be a government would recognize that it is not back to work legislation in and of itself that is the cardinal sin. It is how it is done.
This is where the government has allowed its ideology to take hold, to take over and to create legislation that is an affront to the notion of a fair and equal treatment of people in a back to work situation. Let us remember the very basics. The right to organize, to bargain collectively and to withdraw labour is a right that is now, thanks to the Supreme Court of Canada, is a constitutionally protected right in our country. It is recognized as fundamental to the notion of living in a democratic society.
The right to bargain collectively, to create a union and to be able to legally strike is a constitutional right that must be recognized. Yet, because of a public interest greater than this right, or because of a public emergency, the government may decide that it has the right to do what it is doing now. However, if the government exercises this right, it has a responsibility to protect the public interest. As Liberals, we recognize that this right exists in each democratic government. But this right must be exercised intelligently and in a way that respects the rights of individuals and communities.
If the government takes away the right to collective bargaining, it has to be careful how it does it. It has to recognize that it is interfering in an important constitutional right and it cannot be done just any old way.
My colleagues opposite are currently rapt in attention to every word I am saying, though sometimes it is hard to tell. I can see the members shaking their heads from time to time. However, when this right is exercised, it has to be exercised with care.
In this case, it has not been exercised with care, although we on this side recognize that the legislation will be and is popular with a public that is frustrated with a work stoppage and very much wants the service to be resumed. People want their postal service. We understand that. Everybody understands that. We understand there is an inconvenience to the public and not only an inconvenience, as the parliamentary secretary has rightly pointed out, but people are losing money.
Canada Post is losing money to the tune of about $25 million a day. The workers are losing money because they are not being paid and they are not getting their benefits. We also know many businesses across the country, small and large, charities and individuals, are losing money because of this lock-out. There is no question this is taking place.
However, when a government exercises its duty to protect the public interest, it has to do it in a way that is careful and thoughtful because it is taking away an existing right, even if it is popular. We all know that, from time to time, taking away people's rights can be temporarily and in the short term popular. I am perfectly well aware that when we go outside in a scrum, talk to the media and say that we are not in favour of the legislation, many Canadians will shake their heads and ask why not, that it is a good thing, that people will be getting back to work.
It is not a good thing for some very precise reasons. The precise reasons are to be found in clauses 11, 13 and 15 of the legislation. I ask members to turn clause 11 of the legislation and follow along. My colleague from Cape Breton has already talked about this. It is the way in which the discretion of the arbitrator has been entirely tied and fettered by what the government has done. When the right to strike is taken away, usually an arbitrator is appointed whose job is to provide as fair a conclusion as might be reached by an effective collective agreement, if a collective agreement could be reached.
However, in this instance, the government has said that it will appoint an arbitrator, but the arbitrator has to follow all the criteria with respect to comparable postal industries, whatever they might be. There is only one postal industry in Canada of which I am aware. There is a variety of logistics companies and there is a variety of competitors for the post office, but they operate under very different conditions as has already been stated. They have a very different market. They are not providing a service to the general public, which includes everyone, including services that have a great deal of difficulty making money. It goes on to say that the arbitrator will:
—provide the necessary degree of flexibility to ensure the short- and long-term economic viability and competitiveness of the Canada Post Corporation, maintain the health and safety of its workers and ensure the sustainability of its pension plan, taking into account
(a) that the solvency ratio [which cannot be changed]...; and
(b) that the Canada Post Corporation must, without recourse to undue increases in postal rates, operate efficiently, improve productivity and meet acceptable standards of service.
Therefore, the arbitrator is really being asked to do a job, but he or she is being asked to do a job in a very particular way. The arbitrator is also being asked to do a job, not in finding a solution based on judgment alone but, saying that he or she wants the final best offer from either side. Basically we are asking the union to compete with the employer to see who can bid down these rates as low as possible and who can come up with the cheapest possible plan in order to get to the end.
Then section 13 says that we can bargain and in the meantime we can bargain on salaries.
However, subsection 13(3) says that if a salary calculated in accordance or determined under a new collective agreement is not identical to the result of the increases referred to in section 15, to which I will come in a moment, the new collective agreement is deemed to provide for the salary being increased as provided for in that section.
In ordinary layman's terms, what that means is we cannot bargain money. Therefore, we cannot bargain pensions because we cannot affect the solvency ratio in any way, shape or form. We cannot bargain practically anything else because we might be seen to be affecting the overall competitiveness and productivity of Canada Post. We cannot bargain salaries because the salaries will be dictated by this law.
This is not an arbitration process as would be defined by any court or any labour board in the country. This is not an arbitration that is a substitute for collective bargaining and for the resolution of a dispute, by the exercise of raw, economic power, which is the way in which collective bargaining works in our marketplace.
As has already been pointed out by other speakers, section 15 provides for very precise numbers on how much the workers will be allowed to earn over the next three years, backdated to January 31, 2011.
So what does this mean? The arbitration system created by this bill is in no way equivalent to the bargaining process. It is clear in all Supreme Court of Canada decisions that, if the government takes away collective rights or bargaining rights, it must provide an alternative that guarantees that arbitration will be equivalent to bargaining, in terms of the process or maybe even the result.
The law of the Supreme Court is very clear on taking away the right to strike for whatever reason.
For example, in most provinces there is a right to strike that is taken away for police officers. There is a right to strike that is taken away from people who work in fire departments and emergency services. In some provinces, there is a right to strike that is taken away with respect to hospital workers. These are essential services and there are all kinds of laws put in place to make sure that services continue for the public when they are being disrupted.
In some situations governments would not allow a strike. However, in those circumstances governments have a legal obligation to provide a process that is equal to the collective bargaining process. It must be equal in process and in its potential result. This is not just my opinion, as valuable as I sometimes think that is, it is the constitutional law of this country.
I say to the government opposite that this law is not constitutional. Now, we would only find that out in two or three years. However, the government cannot interfere in collective bargaining to this extent and in this way and not provide an alternative that is at least equal in process and result. That has not been done in this legislation.
I think the government understands this and is engaging us in an act of political theatre knowing full well that there are some in the House who will simply play the game in response. They would say ideologically that they are opposed to any interference in the collective bargaining process. They will stand up and go on filibustering to defend the rights of workers in any and all situations pretending that there is no public interest in the provision of the service when in fact we all know that there is. Perhaps the official opposition will take the bait which is being laid before them by the government.
I have listened to the speeches so far and to the commentary that one hears in the lobby about how this would be filibustered until the cows come home to delay the legislation for all time. The members may throw themselves in front of the Mace and do everything possible to delay the passage of the legislation. I would say the bait has been laid and the bait has been taken. It is too bad for Canada that we do not have a pragmatic, practical approach to the resolution of the dispute which is there to be found.
In our party we come at this without any ideological baggage or wanting to prove to Canadians that we alone are standing between them and utter, complete chaos. We do not have any pretensions to that. We believe in collective bargaining. We believe it is an important right. We also understand that it is not an absolute right. There are times and circumstances when the exercise of it, either by an employer or a trade union, can cause damage and harm to the public. In those circumstances there is an obligation to intervene.
In this particular situation it is rather peculiar. The employer, Canada Post, is very profitable, and by the way, it is owned by the government. The government pretends, “Canada Post, who is that?” Well, the government owns and controls it.
I would be astonished if the management of Canada Post did not discuss with the government of the day what its plans were with respect to collective bargaining. It knows that if it does not go well the House would be involved coming back. No management of Canada Post would just lock people out and wait to see what happens. I do not think that is the way the world works and certainly not governments with which I have been familiar. People tend to talk through some of the consequences when crown corporations are involved and engaged.
What would a possible solution to this situation look like?
First, the government could say to the employer, the company it owns, that it does not think a lockout is a very good idea. Also, the company could say to the union that when it goes back there should be no nonsense about rotating strikes.
Before members of the New Democratic Party start nodding too loudly, they might want to listen to what I am going to say.
The government would have to say that there will be no more nonsense about rotating strikes and disrupting service, that it will give the parties time to reach a collective agreement and if they do not, it will then talk about mediation and arbitration, which will not look like this, but it is going to protect the public interest. If after a period of time, the parties are not able to reach an agreement, they will be told to reach an agreement on what they can and then refer the other issues to arbitration.
That is what happened in the Air Canada situation last week.