Mr. Speaker, I understand that some accommodations were made with the other side to allow me to speak at this time, and I very much appreciate that.
I rise today to speak about Bill C-4, which would make very substantial changes to our labour relations environment.
For the purposes of my speech today, I will focus on one specific element of the the bill, the secret ballot.
I believe in the importance of a secret ballot. On first blush, it would perhaps seem odd that, here we are in 2016, in the Canadian House of Commons with our long history of respecting freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and democracy, and yet it is necessary in 2016 to make arguments about the importance of a secret ballot. Frankly, we thought the argument on structural deficits had been won in the 1990s, and we thought the argument for the secret ballot had been won in the 19th century, yet the current government's actions force us to again make arguments, which to many perhaps seem rather obvious, about how essential it is to allow people to vote in private without someone else's scrutiny.
It is 2016, but I will say, unlike our current Prime Minister, I have more to say in favour of social improvement than simply stating the current date.
I would like to give some background about the certification process, and then make some substantive arguments about the importance of a secret ballot.
We have different systems for union certification, and the context we are talking about today, of course, is the secret ballot for union certification. We favour a secret ballot. We favour the idea that people should be able to express their political views in privacy, without scrutiny from other people. We think that is a good general principle of democracy.
However, in this particular case at least, the government and our colleagues in the NDP think differently. They favour a card check system, which involves a certification process where people are asked to sign on in a sort of semi-public way. Someone ask a person to sign on, those cards would be collected, and then certification would happen automatically based on that card check process. In my view, this very much resembles the sort of 19th century public balloting system and has many of the same problems.
What are the substantive reasons of why a secret ballot is important?
I will start by talking about the right to privacy. People should have their right to privacy respected in matters of political opinion, and one might say in the matter of religious opinion as well, and on these deeply important, and for some people, personal matters. People should have the right to not have to express their opinions in public.
Of course, many people choose to talk publicly about their political perspective. Nobody has any doubt how I voted in the last election. However, just because some people wish to be public, it does not mean that others who wish to be more private should not in fact have the right to do so. We understand and respect the right to privacy in these cases. Without that privacy respected, many people would not have the ability to vote and be confident that there would not be some discomfort to them or some negative consequence.
I was recently in India talking about some human rights issues there. One of the issues in India is that a number of states have laws that require people who want to change their religion to declare so publicly, and then have the state review the process by which they came to that decision. In India, many have concerns about this precisely because of the fact that one should be able to keep those deeply held opinions private.
The argument was made in response that if people are confident in their own perspectives, why should they not be willing to declare them publicly? However, we obviously understand that on these sensitive matters, and that includes opinions about unions and union certification, people should have the right to have the privacy of their opinions respected, and a secret ballot effectively ensures that.
The second argument I will make in defence of the secret ballot is that secret ballots protect people from reprisals and help to avoid corruption. Here I think it is important to visit some of the history around how the secret ballot originally developed.
In 1867 in the U.K., the second reform act was passed, called “The Representation of the People Act”. This enfranchised a greater number of skilled workers.
This made the need for a secret ballot particularly urgent. There was a concern that tradespeople would be subject to undue and inappropriate pressure by their employers in the case of a public ballot. If, as the traditional public ballot system was, people had to go to the town square and declare who they were supporting in an election, skilled workers working for other people in trades and other areas might be subject to significant pressure from employers. This added to the concern as well that the tenant class, people who were working other people's land, might be the subject of eviction or threats of eviction if they voted against the interests of those who owned the land on which they lived.
The public ballot was a way of forcing people to not be able to exercise their political franchise in a way that was consistent with their interests because they were subject to threats of economic coercion and other forms of intimidation.
What is important about this history is that bringing in the secret ballot was an essential reform to protect the rights of working people, to protect the rights of lower-income people in the U.K. at the time of the second reform act. Yet perversely, we have political parties in the House today who claim to advocate for those working men and women, who do not understand how important the secret ballot was and continues to be for protecting their ability to express their opinion.
There was real fear of reprisals at the time. That has echoes in our debate today about the fear that people who are forced to vote in a public ballot may be subject to undue pressure and intimidation. That pressure could come from either side. In particular though, in a card check system that intimidation and undue pressure could come from those who are seeking to sign people up. Regardless of people's opinion on certification in a particular case, working men and women should be free to come to their own conclusions and to express their opinions privately without fear of reprisal.
Another issue at the time the secret ballot was introduced was concern about corruption. If people are voting publicly, it is much easier to offer inappropriate inducements to buy votes when one can actually check to see if they voted as they were paid to do so. The secret ballot, although it does not fully eliminate corruption, helps to ensure that sort of thing does not happen, because there is no way to effectively see if the vote that was bought was actually paid.
Protection against reprisals and corruption were important for bringing in secret ballots and they are important today for ensuring that secret ballots continue to exist in all environments.
The third point I will make in defence of the secret ballot is the importance of a vote being preceded by a process of deliberation in which people can hear arguments from both sides. Both sides should have an opportunity to present arguments in favour or against a particular proposition, in this case certification, before the date on which a vote takes place.
The card check system does not allow that deliberation to happen. The card check system means that the certification process could have gone all the way through in terms of getting all of those signatures before people who have a different opinion are even aware that that process is happening. It undermines the principle that there should be meaningful discussion and debate on both sides. The government seems to understand this principle on some issues, although imperfectly.
We disagree with the government's reluctance to have a referendum when it comes to electoral reform. We hear it make the argument that before any kind of hypothetical vote takes place it is important for there to be a long discussion about the different options and the pros and cons. Why does the government not believe that in the case of certification? Surely, the secret ballot at a specific time provides an opportunity for robust debate within a group of workers about whether or not certification in general, and whether or not certification with a particular union, is a good idea.
Many people might be surprised watching this debate today that it is necessary to make arguments in the House in favour of a secret ballot, that two of the three major parties in the House oppose giving working men and women a secret ballot on something as essential as union certification. We need to make those arguments. The government and the NDP just do not seem to understand how truly foundational, how important this is, how consistent this is with a right to privacy, how a secret ballot protects against reprisals and corruption, and how a secret ballot helps ensure that a vote is preceded by a process of meaningful deliberation.