Pay equity, corporate mergers and the Law of the Sea - Liveblogging the budget at the Senate finance committee

Seriously, this is one of the more eclectic witness lists ITQ has seen in a while – not that that’s a bad thing; I, for one, am oddly reassured by the knowledge  that we have a Maritime Law Secretariat.

2:28:43 PM
Greetings from the deepest, darkest recess of Canadian parliamentary democracy, otherwise known as the Victoria Building, where the shadowy cabal of unelected, unaccountable senators that is the National Finance committee has gathered to plot dastardly deeds and — review the budget implementation bill? That doesn’t sound all that sinister at all.

Anyway, the meeting is actually now underway, and Joseph Day is laying out the gameplan for the next few days — he seems very keen on bringing in more witnesses, from government officials to members of the public. Oh, and they’re planning to hold all day meetings the week after next, by the way. Whee!

2:37:31 PM
More discussion amongst committee members — Consiglio di Nino is slightly taken aback by the fact that today’s witnesses won’t be making opening statements; instead, they’re going to go straight to questions as they look at particular aspects of the bill.

“Who would like to start?” The chair wonders. The apparent bravest of the three witnesses – David Osbaldeston, manager of the Navigable Waters Protection Program at Transport Canada – initially volunteers, but it becomes clear that nobody really understands what the chair expects them to do, other than to talk about the budget as it relates to their respective areas of responsibility and expertise.

He is rescued from what otherwise would likely have been a very awkward moment to have immortalized via the closed ciruit public record by Helene Laurendeau, assistant secretary at Treasury Board, who cheerfully offers to explain the proposed changes to pay equity.

The overall expenditure restraint provision “touched all aspects of compensation”, she points out; seconds later, the lights go out — literally — first in the viewing gallery, and then throughout the room, which is briefly thrown into darkness; the only light emanating from berry screens and the flat screen TVs.

On the plus side, it seemed to fix the sound system, so – no harm, no foul. I think meetings by candlelight would be downright delightful.

2:49:19 PM
Nancy Ruth is up first, and after some back and forthing on a few points of a deeply technical nature, she wonders whether this wouldn’t penalize unionized workers; if the government really wanted to impose wage resrtaint, she notes, why keep the bonus system for assistant deputies and deputy ministers?

2:53:20 PM
Laurendreau is doing her best to convince Ruth that “the senior cadre” will be treated the same as those on the lower end of the pay scale, but it isn’t working.

Let’s see if she has better luck with Art Eggleton, who is apparently going to take over where Ruth left off – how’s that for bipartisan cooperation, huh? – Laurendreau notes that those who remain on the increment system will get more money – to the top of the range.

What about reclassification, he wonders, to get around the one and a half percent increase limit? “You have a long memory, senator,” says Laurendreau in a manner just shy of being best described as “flirtatious”. “I *was* president of the Treasury Board,” he reminds her.

3:00:08 PM
Huh – apparently expenditure restraint will prevent the government from offering a “market allowance” in situations where they have a particular need to recruit certain professions, such as pharmacists or doctors. Mitchell wonders: “Does this mean we couldn’t offer it to get more doctors to Afghanistan?” For the next two years, yes, it does, confirms Laurendreau.

Before ceding the floor, the senator has to get one more shot in at the government, albeit by proxy: he reminds her that despite her assurances that the right to strike will not be affected, it *would have been*, had last fall’s legislation gone through. She looks stonily at him as she points out that she can only discuss the bill in front of us.

3:06:54 PM
Consiglio di Nino wants to know more about accountability, and wonders whether the Auditor General is involved – and the answer, of course, is that she has the power to audit pretty much anything. He has a few other queries along those same lines, which seems to principly serve as a way to draw out more examples of the oversight mechanisms already in place.

3:13:44 PM
Hey, Lowell Murray is sitting with the Liberals today! He also wonders how expenditure restraint would affect the collective agreements that were signed with various public sector unions last year – including two that were finalized after the surprise prorogation on December 4th.

Laurendreau assures him that there was nothing significant in the timing — negotiations had been underway for months, and they weren’t about to let a little thing like a constitutional crisis stand in the way. Oh, and it sounds as if the new caps *would* apply to compensation reached as a result of collective bargaining – not retroactive, but going forth from April 1st, I guess.

3:21:00 PM
And now, round two! Wow – at this rate, they’re never going to be able to get through the full witness list.

Pierrette Ringuette wonders how cutting wages for public servants will stimulate the economy, and Laurendreau tries to demur — she notes that the question doesn’t fall under her area of expertise, and Ringuette pounces: isn’t this part of the PM’s proposed stimulus package, after all? Laurendreau passes, but Ringuette is serious: how does a decision by one of the largest employers in the country to freeze wages help the economy? That’s more a question of policy, insists Laurendreau – who is getting a bit testy, which is why it’s probably all for the best that they move onto the next questioner: “Not That” Michel Rivard, still relatively newly appointed senator from Quebec.

3:30:08 PM
Rivard really didn’t have much in the way of questions, as it turns out, which is fine as far as Senator Chaput is concerned; all the more time for her to grill Laurendreau a little bit more on wage restraints as a tool of stimulus. Nancy Ruth also wonders if there was any consideration given to taking something other than a universal approach — lower rates of increase for higher salaries, that sort of thing. The answer appears to be no: it was determined that this package was “the most coherent and the least intrusive”.

3:33:17 PM
And now, pay equity! Specifically, the proposal to “modernize” the system for handling pay equity, as set out in Part 11 of the budget implementation bill. Laurendreau unsuccessfully attempts to hide the fact that she really wouldn’t mind a brief reprieve; “I was hoping we might do another part first,” she sighs, to nobody in particular.

3:40:45 PM
After a quick but thorough overview of what Part 11 would do to change the existing process for dealing with pay equity issues, Laurendeau seems to surprise Eggleton when she tells him that even after the budget goes through, nothing will change for the next three years, as far as how pay equity is handled; the new system will only come into effect in 2012. He wonders what incentive unions will have to negotiate responsibly on the part of their members, and Laurendeau points out that they’ll actually have obligations under the new law; that’s precisely the flaw in the current law that this was designed to address.

3:50:12 PM
Okay, so it sounds like the gist of Eggleton’s concern over this particular aspect of the law is that a union could ultimately decide that it’s not worth making pay equity a dealbreaker; they could, in theory, end up sacrificing the rights of female workers for the good of the whole, and there’d be nothing those women could do about it. Laurendeau clearly doesn’t think much of that assessment, but it looks like they’ll have to agree to disagree.

Meanwhile, Nancy Ruth wonders what will happen to all the jurisprudence that has accumulated over the years under the existing legislation.

She also puts what is likely an uncomfortably personal question to the witness: Does she, as a woman and a senior member of the public service, really believe that this is the right direction for pay equity? That, Laurendeau points out (somewhat unnecessarily), is a policy question, but she does tell the committee that she has worked on this for twelve years, and really does seem to be a fan of the proposed changes.

4:01:00 PM
Back to Senator Ringuette, who also appreciates the “enthusiasm” that Laurendeau demonstrates when discussing the pay equity changes, but wants to know why it’s necessary to remove the mechanism for filing complaints completely. Oh, they’re not, Laurendeau assures her – those complaints will still go to an alternate adjudicator, who will review and, if necessary, intervene. They still can’t go to *real* court though, right? Or even the human rights tribunal?

4:07:21 PM
Grant Mitchell tries to get the witness to admit that the pay equity change won’t save any money for the government – thereby allowing him to point to yet another example of how the government is using the stimulus package as a Trojan horse to smuggle in all sorts of contentious policy changes. She agrees with his point that it’s not about money – not in a bad way, that is, the way one minister seemed to suggest that money paid out as a result of pay equity rulings was somehow a waste – but notes that it will save on legal bills, at the very least.

Mitchell worries that it’s a very one-sided process, since women who want to make complaints can’t do so with the support of their union, which would face a fine for helping her.

4:13:52 PM
Okay, I’m not sure who the guy sitting next to me is — he’s at the media table, but I think he’s a staffer, or possibly a bureaucrat — but whoever he might be, he apparently derives a great degree of amusement and entertainment from the very existence of Grant Mitchell. I’m just not sure if he’s laughing at or with him. Actually, I wish I could pay more attention to the makeup of the audience in general – it is nearly entirely comprised of departmental observers, I think, here to root for their respective witnesses.

“In a condescending way, someone else will look out for women’s rights,” Mitchell concludes his questioning of Laurendeau, who responds only with an expression of enviable impassivity.

4:20:22 PM
More questions on pay equity from Maria Chaput, who wonders how this will affect women without representation. Laurendeau tells her that members of any group that is “forgotten” – isolated, smaller units – could file a complaint with the board – that’s the Public Service Labour Relations Board, I think .

4:24:27 PM
Catherine Callbeck takes a more combative approach than the last few questioners, and challenges Laurendeau to respond to a letter sent to the Prime Minister and signed by “over a hundred” experts in human rights and women’s law, which avers that the proposed changes would violate the Charter. Although Laurendeau claims that she hasn’t read the letter – which I guess could be true, but you’d think she’d be monitoring any and all legal and political developments that could affect the fate of “her” bill – she tells the committee that the government wouldn’t introduce legislation unless it believed that it was constitutional; she tries to address some of the concerns raised, but Callbeck has made up her mind.

4:30:58 PM
Ooh, a point each to Callbeck and Mitchell, who provoked a riot of activity amongst the TBS contingent in the audience when they pointed out that, contrary to what Laurendeau seemed to be suggesting earlier this afternoon, the task force on pay equity explicitly recommended *against* making it part of the collective bargaining process. Mitchell even reads that portion of the report into the record as Laurendeau stares balefully at her notes; meanwhile, there is a flurry of papers changing hands in the gallery. Everyone looks a bit rattled. Really, for a civil servant, this must be even worse than having your minister up at committee; this is one of *them* in the firing line.

Di Nino gallantly tries to come to her rescue, and suggests that It’s not fair to read bits and pieces of a report into the record, but when she’s given the chance to respond, Laurendeau basically admits that the tagteaming senators are right; she points out that she never claimed that the bill included all 49 task force recommendations.

4:40:49 PM
Senator Gerstein would like to start by waxing laudatory and eloquent on the outstanding quality of the presentation, and the general awesomeness of Laurendeau – passionate, articulate, informative. He doesn’t actually have a question, as it turns out – he just wanted to applaud her sublime and admirable moxie. She thanks him, turning a little pink in the process, but really, who among us wouldn’t?

4:42:54 PM
Over to Michel Rivard, who wonders whether it wouldn’t be a better use of their collective time — something which is, of course, of the essence — to hear from witnesses opposed to the legislation, and not just the government. Day reminds him that this is exactly what the steering committee has agreed to do. “We have a panel and everything,” he assures the senator, who seems mollified.

That was odd. Do you think maybe I accidentally misheard him, or was he suggesting that the committee hear from witnesses more likely to criticize the government — the government headed by the same man who appointed him?

4:49:43 PM
Well, maybe we’ll find out now that he’s up: Rivard begins by expressing his “great respect” to the colleague to his right – that would be Nancy Ruth, with whom he’s about to disagree. Oh, turns out he doesn’t have a question either.

Over to Robert Neufeld, also a newbie, who spends a moment or two laying out his credentials – spent a few years in the BC provincial legislature; done a bit of law-making in his time – and he wonders if he’s right in assuming that the government would have been given options, at some point – different directions that could be taken. “At the end of the day, the government of the day adopted this, and decided to go forward,” he notes. Not sure where he’s going with this, really. Oh, I guess wherever it was, it got him there, since he just wrapped it up, noting “that answers that question.”

4:55:45 PM
One more supplementary from Grant Mitchell, who wants to point out that there may be “significant differences” between this proposed system, and that of various provincial governments, and with that, she is released. Half the room empties out as Laurendeau makes her way out from the table to the door, and freedom – freedom! The rest of us turn our collective gaze to Colette Downie, director general with Industry Canada’s Marketplace Framework Policy Branch, who will be discussing Part 12 if anyone wants to play along at home.

5:02:24 PM
Okay, so basically, Part 12 involves changes – some minor tweaks, some major shifts in policy – to the Competition Act. Kicking off questions for the Liberals, Catherine Callbeck suggests that many of the proposed amendments related to mergers were done without public consultation, and quotes from the Canadian Bar Association to back up her contention; Downie seems a little taken abac, but does her best to reassure the committee that these issues will be addressed. Downie’s fellow director general Adam Fanaki pipes up to provide even more reassurance, particularly with regards to the merger review process.

5:10:33 PM
Well, it reassured *me*, but apparently Callbeck is a significantly harder sell; she points out that she has heard the same criticism — that the review process is overly burdensome, timely and costly — from numerous interested parties. Downie reminds her that under the current regime – which Fanaki would likely want me to point out hasn’t been adopted by any other country – there’s nothing to stop parties from simply running down the clock (and up the billable hours, one suspects).

5:15:29 PM
Callbeck wants to know if the second stage of the merger review process was discussed during the consultations by the Wilson panel, and Downie gently points out that neither she nor Fanaki were in the room at the time.

5:16:58 PM
Over to Rivard, who asks whether it’s fair to say that the amendments were largely to tighten the law against price fixing and cartels. It seems that it sort of is – under the current law, the Commissioner of Competition not only has to find evidence of price-fixing, but also has to show that it actually worked, and unduly lessened competition in the market. These changes would “make criminal what everyone knows is criminal.”

But how will it stimulate the economy? Sorry, sorry.

5:21:57 PM
Di Nino points out that, when it comes to the part of this bill that deal with the Competition Act, many of the changes were first proposed in C-19, which was introduced during the last Parliament, and which itself was the product of consultation. He also has a long, somewhat technical question on airlines – I admit I sort of zoned out partway through; in my defence, it’s been a long afternoon. Once he’s done, Grant Mitchell asks what I suspect will be an oft-recurring question during discussion of the non-budgetary sections of the bill: What’s the rush? Why does this have to pass before April? Why not May?

Downie, to her credit, gives a long and thoughtful response; she points out that some companies might take advantage of the current economic situation to engage in price fixing, but Mitchell doesn’t buy it. He asks the exact same question posed somewhat facetiously by ITQ moments ago: How does this stimulate the economy? He takes it a step further, though, noting that the more stringent regulations and more substantial punishments could scare businesses out of even legitimate activities, thus acting as a *destimulus*. Le eek!

5:33:17 PM
Add Redd Wilson and the Canadian Bar Association to the rapidly expanding witness list!

5:38:11 PM
An understated but universal sense of cool, calm, collected panic is starting to flood the spectators’ gallery where no one knows whether this meeting is ever actually going to end. In theory, they’re supposed to take a break before going in camera at 6:30, but certain senators – I’m looking at you, Senator Murray – seem to be getting their respective second winds.

5:40:46 PM
Over to Lowell Murray, who admits that he hasn’t thought about this particular area of public policy in a long time; he can’t quite figure out where everyone is today, he says. Who administers the Act, exactly? The Competition Bureau enforces the law, he notes, and I’ve never noticed this before about Senator Murray: he sounds almost exactly like James Stewart. His voice, that is, not what he’s actually saying.

Fanaki and Downie give Murray a crash course in how competition law has changed over the last few decades before the senator from Pakenham finally gets back to the legislation; why, he wonders, would the changes come into effect a year after the passage of the bill?

5:47:54 PM
You know, I’m starting to wonder whether senators understand that they aren’t actually required to speak at committee, particularly if they don’t have a question. Michael deBane, for instance, seems to be searching desperately for something to ask the witnesses; he wonders how many investigators are in the field, and other bits of background information that the research staff could probably Google him up in a few seconds.

Oh, but he does have an amusing story from his days as a smoker, when he would wonder how it was that every brand of cigarettes cost exactly the same – and now, all the banks charge $1.50 to use the ATM, and where is the competition there, smart director general? Huh? “Someone must be sleeping at the switch,” he says before moving on to misleading advertising, and – is he just rambling about things that bother him that seem, to him, to fall under Downie’s jurisdiction of “market framework”? I wish I could see her face right now.

5:56:02 PM
Ow ow ow ow ow – you wouldn’t think that smacking your fingers on the plug at the other end of your earpiece would be that agonizingly painful, but there we are. Anyway, Fanaki is diligently responding to DeBane’s litany of complaints, and even managed to work it back to the bill – remember that? – by suggesting that it will allow the Bureau to do more to administer and prosecute with limited resources.
DeBane wonders how many investigators he has compared to, say, the Weights and Measures Commission, but neither Fanaki nor Downie can answer him.

6:04:56 PM
Okay, you know I absolutely hate bailing on a committee midway through a meeting, but the latest bit of intracommittee chatter strongly suggests that this one may go all night, and I’m not sure if ITQ is prepared to do the same. We’ll see what happens after Downie – who is still up, but nearly finished with her allotted sections of the bill; she’s taking a few questions on changes to the Investment Act, but I don’t know how many there will be.

6:09:43 PM
Well, you can always count on Catherine Callbeck to be there with a question when silence threatens to envelop the room; she wonders how this will stimulate the economy, and despite another impressive effort by Downie, is entirely unconvinced by her response, which has something to do with terrorism, and stock markets, and – okay, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was still a good effort. “I accept your answer, but I still don’t see why there’s such a rush,” she tells Downie.

6:11:52 PM
Senator Ringuette tells the witness she has two questions – let’s hope they’re short, simple ones, shall we? – starting with the suggestion that Canadian businesses are receiving less value on the market while increasing the limit for foreign takeovers to $1 billion.

6:14:45 PM
ITQ just had a visit fron the datesquare fairy, y’all, and the resulting boost of spirit and energy was sufficiently dramatic so as to make me downright dazzled by Senator Ringuette’s lengthy diatribe against the bill; specifically, these changes, which just don’t make sense to her, and aren’t supportive of Canadian business. So there.

6:21:52 PM
Maria Chaput is equally concerned about the loosening of foreign investment rules, and suggests that these measures *could* contribute to the economy – she’d like to know what criteria were used to come up with this policy. Richard Sallient, another Industry Canada witness, offers to give her some context for the current thresholds, but loses points for not using the word “brief”.
What? I give out the points, I make the rules. Chaput looks utterly riveted by his reply, particularly when he pinkyswears that there will be no threshold as far as national security goes.

6:27:50 PM
Grant Mitchell is continuing with much the same line of questioning, but he could be about to uncover the truth about the Kennedy assassination and it wouldn’t drag all eyes from the discussions that are underway between committee members, which we assume involve the all important question of when to take a break. (Your liveblogger will be leaving after this round regardless of the decision; four hours is, as it turns out, her limit as far as berrying without a break.)

Meanwhile, Senator Mira Spivak has joined the party with a question about how the changes
might affect land ownership, specifically provincial regulation thereof, and there’s a complex backstory involving Saudi Arabian purchase of Manitoba land.

And – that’s it for these witnesses, apparently: after being thanked by the chair, they scurry off in various directions.

6:37:16 PM
And that’s it for ITQ too. G’night, everyone! Don’t worry, we’ll be back on our regular House committee circuit tomorrow – and next week, we’re ready for all-Senate-finance-all-the-time. But is it ready for us?