Madam Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-344, an act to amend the Department of Public Works and Government Services Act regarding community benefit. While this bill has commendable intentions, it is my great concern that it will actually have a negative impact on our communities and the small and medium-sized construction businesses that employ so many Canadians. In my opinion, this private member's bill continues the Liberals' assault on SMEs by adding another layer of red tape to federal government contracts.
Just last week, I spoke on Bill C-69 and the Liberals' changes to the Navigation Protection Act contained within that bill. Like Bill C-344, the changes to the NPA would add more red tape and cost for project proponents and the construction companies that do the work. While this private member's bill may be smaller in scope and thereby seen as less problematic for small and medium-sized businesses than the government's omnibus bill, Bill C-69, it still reflects a worrying trend by the government.
The Liberals' mentality seems to be that they can add any amount of new taxes on businesses and that it will have no effect on their bottom line or the price they charge their customers or, on this occasion, that they can attach any amount of red tape on businesses' activities and they will happily absorb the administrative burden. This is not the case. There are consequences every time a government does this, just as there are benefits every time a government reduces taxes or cuts red tape for job-creating small and medium-sized businesses. If passed, this bill would pertain to those projects and the subsequent contracts awarded by the federal Minister of Public Services and Procurement.
I will talk about the substance of narrow scope of the bill in a minute, but for the moment, I will speculate about why the Liberals, through this private member's bill, have limited the application of the bill in such a way. It could be that the Liberals actually know that applying these principles more broadly would generate a larger backlash among the construction industry and the many partners that often work with the federal government to fund projects. It could be that Liberals want to use this private member's bill as a virtue-signalling talking point in order to win over a certain segment of the population. It could also be that some Liberals actually realize that slapping this requirement onto all federally funded projects would have a negative impact on the construction industry, as I have already identified, and as a result, they have decided to limit the damage to a more narrowly defined category of projects.
As I mentioned earlier, this private member's bill covers a limited number of projects and contracts of which the federal government is a partner. This private member's bill would amend the Department of Public Works and Government Services Act and would not apply to the projects that the federal government supports through the department of infrastructure. Still, the government's support of this bill is something that the construction industry and the federal government's partners should be aware of and concerned about.
Looking at the substance of the bill in a bit more detail, I find the level of ambiguity contained in Bill C-344 troubling. In clause 1 of the bill, the section creating new subclause 20.1(2) states, “The Minister may, before awarding a contract for the construction, maintenance or repair of public works, federal real property or federal immovables, require bidders on the proposal to provide information on the community benefits to be derived from the project.” First, this clause says, “The Minister may”. “May” is a small word, but it sure has huge implications. Right there, we have uncertainty. This rule will not be constant. How will bidders know if this requirement will be applied?
Next, the new subclause 20.1(3) states, “A contracting party shall, upon request by the Minister, provide the Minister with an assessment as to whether community benefits have derived from the project.” Here we have more ambiguity, particularly in the needlessly vague and nebulous term “community benefit”. How is a bidder to determine what constitutes “community benefit”?
As we heard from the question I asked the sponsor of this bill, he could provide no definition. How is a bidder to know whether said benefit will meet whatever subjective criterion the minister choses to employ? When the bill states, “upon request by the Minister”, there is no certainty for the bidders or ultimately the successful bidder. This means that if this bill were to pass, people bidding on a contract will have to price into their bid the risk of being required to do or produce what the minister wants without knowing what that may be.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I think the intent behind Bill C-344 is commendable. However, it leaves me wondering how the Liberals feel about charity and social responsibility, and whether they have considered the law of unintended consequences.
I would like to quote from Michael Atkinson, President of the Canadian Construction Association, who appeared before the transport, infrastructure and communities committee when this bill was being studied.
Regarding corporate social responsibility, Mr. Atkinson stated:
Corporate social responsibility is becoming something that we are looking at very earnestly in our industry. It's a very important part of doing business today. We have a how-to guide coming out for our contracting members in the industry, but CSR is not social procurement. CSR is a voluntary program that a corporate entity takes on to ensure that what it does as a company meets environmental sensibilities, good HR practices, etc. Social procurement is a government coming out and saying, “If you want to do business with us, then you have to have a CSR policy.” I think that's a very important difference.
Mr. Atkinson highlights a very important distinction. Businesses in general, and many companies in the construction industry, already make investments in their local communities as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility. I believe that it is important that in this conversation about community benefit, we do not minimize the benefit that communities are already receiving from businesses of all sizes. The picture painted by those in the Liberal Party and the NDP is that corporate Canada simply takes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Corporations, big and small, give back to their communities. They provide jobs to families in the communities in which they operate. However, beside this very basic economic support, small, medium and large businesses sponsor community events, support local infrastructure, and provide support to non-profit community groups like sports teams. They do this not out of obligation or necessity but out of an appreciation for the community they work and operate in, and sometimes live in, because they know they are part of the community. They do not need to be told how to be good corporate citizens. Most already are.
Of the reasons that I will not be supporting Bill C-344, the most notable are that I believe it minimizes the support and benefits that already accrue to communities when a project is undertaken in their backyard, that it is needlessly ambiguous, and that it fails to consider the unintended consequences that may arise from its implementation.