OTTAWA — Without a hint of irony, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited Unifor’s praise for his government’s handling of the NAFTA file Tuesday as Conservative MPs spent question period attacking his government’s relationship with the “anti-Conservative” union.
Trudeau was grilled over the decision to appoint Unifor as one of eight groups who will name a panel of experts to help decide which media outlets will qualify for a government handout to journalistic outfits. Unifor, the union representing the largest number of journalists, had previously referred to itself as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s “worst nightmare” in a social media post.
“Unifor is a highly partisan group,” charged deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt. “Its objective is to elect Liberals and defeat Conservatives, yet the prime minister has chosen to appoint it to this very important panel. Why does the prime minister not openly admit he is stacking the deck for himself?”
Trudeau responded that his government believes a strong, independent media is a cornerstone of Canadian democracy and that it is acting to ensure media continue to hold elected officials to account.
By appointing Unifor, Trudeau suggested the government was only ensuring that employees were represented along with employers to a panel drafting recommendations for what qualifications news organizations would need to benefit from a $595-million support package to the struggling industry.
“The Conservatives, however, continue to attack organized labour, including attacking the largest private sector union in the country, because their hate for labour does not know limits,” Trudeau accused.
Moments later, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh stood up to ask why the federal government was pushing to pass the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), or NAFTA 2.0 as some have called it, quickly rather than wait and see what changes the Democrats in Congress might bring to help protect jobs and lower the cost of medication. Trudeau said the government had worked hard to negotiate the best possible deal for Canadians and that was exactly what they had gotten.
“It’s not just us that is saying that,” the prime minister said in French. “Let’s ask Jerry Dias, of Unifor, who said that it is a deal that is much better than the deal that was signed 25 years ago,” Trudeau said to the amusing astonishment of the Conservative bench.
“Oh, oh,” they called out with smiles on their faces.
Dias is Unifor’s national president.
Watch: Trudeau says Unifor, union leaders back new NAFTA
In the House, the Tories didn’t let the issue go. British Columbia MP Mark Strahl said Dias had boasted of Unifor being a major financial supporter of Engage Canada in the last election. The group is currently running ads against Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and, in 2015, ran ads against then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper.
Manitoba MP Candice Bergen called Unifor “overtly anti-Conservative” and wondered if the union’s presence was all part of a Liberal plan to “rig the next election.”
Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu told HuffPost Canada it was definitely not a stretch to suggest the Liberals were trying to tip the scales to benefit them.
“I think it is explaining to Canadians and providing them the information of how this government is definitely trying to rig the election,” she said. “This latest one on trying to influence the media is just one of many.”
Gladu pointed to a change in the new election law, which comes into force next month, that she said that benefits the Liberals. It’s a new cap on the amount of money third-party groups, such as Engage Canada, can spend in the two-month plus period prior to the election.
“If you have a hundred Liberal organizations, each one of them can spend $1.5 million dollars where the parties are limited,” she said.
But Gladu is wrong. Third-party organizations can only spend, according to Elections Canada, $1,023,400 on pre-writ advertising and partisan activities such as polling from June 30th until the date of the election call. Political parties can actually spend more during this pre-election period —$1,100,000 — on partisan advertising.
The news rules set caps on advertising, whereas in 2015 there were no caps and third-party groups could spend as much money as they wanted.
Gladu’s point though is that there were “way more left-leaning organizations that were willing to spend money to get the Liberals elected” than Conservative ones willing to do the same — something, she hopes, her party will fix.
“Certainly, we will be searching for that voice to equilibrate,” she said.
Her preference, she said, would be to eliminate third-party advertising completely and only allow political parties to communicate with voters.
“The way elections ought to go is that Canadians ought to receive information, and the parties should be the only ones that are able to do [that] — whatever they can raise from the people that support them. When you get these extra folks with their own agenda that are trying to influence and it is not equal, I think that leads to a biased result,” she said. “It is not a service to Canadians.”
The Tories are currently flush with cash, raising in the first quarter of 2019, for example, $8 million compared to $3.9 million raised by the Liberals.