Appearance before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on Bill C-377, An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations)

May 7, 2015
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Daniel Therrien
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)


Introduction

Honourable Chair and Senators, thank you for inviting me to speak with you regarding Bill C-377.
Our Office has a longstanding practice of examining the privacy risks posed by an initiative by applying a privacy analysis framework, based on demonstrating necessity, effectiveness, proportionality, and on examining less privacy intrusive alternatives.   It is through the lens of this four-part test that I make the following comments.

The Need for Public Disclosure

Bill C-377 aims to increase the transparency and accountability of labour unions by requiring the public disclosure, through a Canada Revenue Agency website, of personal information which is generally very sensitive, such as salaries and political activities.  While transparency and accountability are essential features of good governance and critical elements of an effective and robust democracy, so is the need to protect individual privacy. Thus, any public disclosure being contemplated in Bill C-377 to increase the transparency and accountability of unions must be carefully balanced with the need to protect the personal information of individual members and affected third parties. A balance must be struck between accountability and the protection of privacy.

To determine whether this legislation is necessary for accountability purposes, I believe it is relevant to ask to whom is this accountability owed. If enhanced transparency and accountability are for workers and union members as suggested by some members of Parliament, I would submit that public disclosure of sensitive and extensive personal information on a CRA website is not necessary to achieve this objective. Provincial laws already require unions to make available financial statements to their members. This information is internally available to members and, in many cases, publicly posted on union websites. These statements do not provide names and are usually in aggregate form.

It may be that accountability may require the disclosure of some elements of personal information of union leaders, for instance their salaries, but if accountability is for members, I do not see why disclosure of this information to the public at large is necessary.

However, if Parliament is of the view that unions are generally accountable to tax payers since member dues are tax deductible, I would like to put forth some thoughts concerning the proportionality of the requirements contemplated in Bill C-377 and suggest some less privacy intrusive alternatives to achieving accountability through public disclosure.

Proportionality of Bill C-377 Requirements

There is a precedent in federal legislation requiring the public disclosure of personal information in the name of accountability to taxpayers: I am referring here to the scheme applicable to registered charities. Under that scheme, registered charities are required to publicly disclose only salary information for their highest-compensated positions in annual information returns, without identifying the individuals occupying these positions. There is no obligation to make public the political activities of these senior officers, nor their lobbying or educational activities.  In my view, such a qualified public reporting requirement represents a more appropriate balance between accountability and privacy. It could potentially apply to labour organizations.

I must say I am particularly troubled by the fact that Bill C-377 proposes to associate the name of specific individuals to political activities. These activities are clearly of a sensitive nature. Why require this disclosure when other schemes adopted in the name of accountability to taxpayers do not?

Although less sensitive, the public naming of individual payers and payees associated with transactions having a cumulative value over $5000 is also, I believe, disproportionately intrusive from a privacy perspective as it would catch not only union members, but many third party contractors as well.

As for publicly disclosing the names of individuals earning over $100,000, as a principle, an individual’s remuneration constitutes sensitive personal information that cannot be disclosed without consent. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the salary disclosure of senior public servants in some jurisdictions. However, even where such exceptions can be made in the name of greater accountability and transparency, I believe they should be limited in scope.

Possible Less-Intrusive Alternatives

As mentioned, provincial laws already provide for the disclosure of information to union members in the name of accountability and, in my view, they do this in a privacy sensitive way.

Internationally, legislation with similar objectives either is limited to the disclosure of financial statements (in France) or, when personal information is involved, is limited to the salaries of a union’s highest paid officers (in the UK and Australia). Only the US has legislation similar to Bill C-377.

Returning to the specifics of Bill C-377, if you believe that transactions with a cumulative value exceeding $5000 should be reported, these could be itemized as part of the union’s financial statements without naming a specific payer and payee. 

Finally,  the estimated breakdown in terms of percentage of time spent on political, lobbying or non-union related activities, need not, and should not, be publicly attributed to specific individuals.  If Parliament believes that such public disclosure is a necessary, effective and proportionate step in the name of greater transparency and accountability of unions, then it should only be disclosed in general, aggregate terms.

Conclusion

I hope that my comments will help ensure that the Bill strikes the right balance between transparency and accountability of unions on the one hand, and the privacy rights of individuals on the other.

I am happy to answer any questions.

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