Mr. Speaker, let me remind the House that the official opposition respects the Supreme Court's decision that the RCMP officers are entitled to bargain collectively. The Conservative Party supports the role of the mounted police and we thank the members for the great work they do on the front lines, serving Canadians every day.
It was interesting to hear the prior speaker from the government side say that we needed to move fast. It has taken the government almost 12 months, since June 2016, to bring the legislation to the House in response to the Senate amendments. RCMP families and members have been waiting that 12 months.
It is well known within policing circles across Canada that RCMP members have fallen behind significantly in their remuneration and their benefits as a result of that 12 months and the fact that this issue has taken so much time to come back to the House.
When members across the aisle say that they meet with members and that they will be happy, of course they will be happy because we are finally dealing with it. However, since the time of the decision, it has taken the Liberals two years to get to here. Clearly, this could have happened a lot sooner. Today we are told that we will only have five days of debate, that the Liberals are shutting the debate down. The reality is that we will have only two days of debate.
I will give a quick background on what is known as the RCMP unionization bill.
The Supreme Court ruled, in the Mounted Police Association of Ontario vs. Canada, that the existing labour relations regime violated the rights of the RCMP members under section 2(d) Freedom of Association of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court ordered the government to remedy this charter breach.
As the official opposition, we took the position that the original bill, while a reasonable response to the court's ruling, could not be supported as it denied the RCMP members the right to vote or, as some people refer to it, a secret ballot in the certification process.
In June 2016, the Senate returned a significantly amended Bill C-7 to the House. Let me talk about those Senate amendments. These Senate amendments came back, after the Senate's scrutiny and study. They were unanimously supported by all members of all parties on all sides within the Senate. The amendments included: first, the right to vote or the secret ballot certification process; second, confirmed and clarified the existence of management rights for the RCMP commissioner; third, removed a number of items excluded from negotiations in the original bill, such as transfers, relocations and dismissals, uniforms and equipment; and fourth, enabled an arbitrator in a decision to consider not only the collective agreement but the legislative context as well.
Here is the government's response to those four amendments, which we received late last Thursday, early Friday. I will go at those four issues one at a time.
First, the government disagrees with the creation of the right to vote through a secret ballot. Second, it agrees with the RCMP commissioner, management rights and amendment. Third, it agrees with the removal of all exclusions. Fourth, it disagrees with the broader interpretation of grievances.
Clearly the government must take action to restore the confidence of the front-line police officers in the RCMP's management and restore the confidence in Canadians in the RCMP. That means ensuring the RCMP pay is in line with the pay of other police forces. it also means working to ensure appropriate recruitment and retention programs.
As mentioned, in January 2015, in the Mounted Police Association of Ontario vs. Canada, the Supreme Court said that the labour relations law violated the rights of RCMP members under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The majority ruling stated, “What is required is not a particular model, but a regime that does not substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining and thus complies with” the freedom of association.
I remind the House that in its ruling the court gave the government 12 months to remedy the charter breach.
In January 2016, the government requested and received an extension from the court until April 2016. To be fair, this was not an unreasonable request as there had been a general election in the interim. The government did after all deserve an opportunity to get it right. Well, the Liberals did not get it right.
Again to be fair, the bill in its original form was, for the most part, a reasonable response to the court's ruling. Members on this side of the House did take the time to point that out when it was originally debated almost a year ago. I will discuss how we did that later.
We also expressed our willingness to move this legislation quickly and to work constructively with the government. All of us as members of Parliament represent members of the RCMP in our ridings. Some of us know them closer than others, but we all had heard from them through our constituency offices as to what the issues were with respect to their importance.
In fact, there was some discussion, anecdotally, in my riding of the reason why we was here. It was not because the bill had been delayed even further. It was because of the yellow ribbon campaign of the front-line officers who began to take stripes off some of their uniforms and put yellow ribbons to replace them to express the fact that nothing was happening. Suddenly when they did that, we got action.
We also expressed our willingness to move legislation quickly, but it had a fatal flaw. Specifically, it denied the RCMP members a right to vote by secret ballot. By doing so, it denied those RCMP members with a choice free of intimidation from all sides on whether they wanted representation and who would represent them in collective bargaining negotiations.
The bill was returned to the House amended to include that right to vote secret ballot clause. Let us not forget that. The actual mover of the motion in the Senate on the government side, who happened to be, by the way, an RCMP member at one time, unanimously agreed to send it back to the House with that included. Also, this amendment was supported by the government bill in the Senate.
In June 2016, the Senate returned the amended bill to the House. For months, the government told us it was considering the Senate's amendments “as quickly as we can”. Here we are nearly a year later and we are just getting the government's response. It has been nearly two and a half years since the Supreme Court brought down its original ruling. One cannot help but wonder why there is suddenly a rush to get the bill passed after such a long delay.
Perhaps the yellow ribbon campaign was the catalyst, launched in response to an equally long-awaited pay package. Perhaps it is the increasing frustration from more and more RCMP officers who are expressing openly with RCMP management and with the government on a number of issues. Unfortunately, RCMP members had to be brought to the brink before the government finally woke up.
To quote the commissioner,“...I tell you all solemnly: we went to bat and our Minister...went to bat, and there was no better package to be had at this time”.
If true, I give the minister full credit. However, guess who is the only person in a position to strike the minister out when he went to bat for those RCMP members. It was the Prime Minister.
As mentioned earlier, the Senate's amendments introduced a secret ballot or right to vote certification process. As well, they confirmed and clarified the existence of management rights for the RCMP commissioner, they removed a number of items excluded as non-negotiable in the original bill, and they enabled an arbitrator in a decision to consider not only a future collective agreement but legislative context as well.
I am glad to see that the government has finally come forward with its response to the Senate, even if it did take nearly a year or so.
We continue to support the general direction of the bill. However, we simply cannot support any legislation that denies employees, especially RCMP members, their right to vote in a secret ballot, free of intimidation from all sides.
Earlier, my colleague rose on a question to the member who had just previously delivered a speech about this issue and how it is a fundamental right in our democracy for that secrecy of our vote. I could give many examples of how we defend this around the world, as a government. Over the years many members from the current government have asked to go to monitor elections in other countries, to monitor the fact that we hold sacred the right to be able to choose without intimidation from any side. One of the members I personally spoke with on this issue expressed to me his deep disappointment in the fact that the Senate amendment for the right to vote has been turned down by the government. As he relayed it to me, as was mentioned in another answer today, RCMP detachments take all forms, in terms of size, scale, and scope. We have many small detachments around the country and we have large detachments as well.
However, he pointed out that in the small detachments around the country that might have five or six members working there, maybe even less, how much of a role intimidation will play, in terms of how those members are asked to vote in this process, because the office has its superiors, it has members at all different ranks of membership in the RCMP and in their occupation. As he said, they really will not have a choice at all; they will have to be falling in line with their supervisors, essentially.
This is a crime that should not have happened, in terms of the government turning down what the Senate unanimously brought back as an amendment.
We are in support of our front-line members and we would like to see them have the direction that the bill is taking, giving them the collective rights.
I would like to make two last points. Number one, it has taken far too long for the government to get off its heels to bring it to the House, and number two, we will always protect the right to free voting.