TORONTO (miningweekly.com) – It was a case of Daniel entering the lion's den in downtown Toronto on Thursday, as Canadian Liberal MP John McKay, who tabled the contentious Bill C-300, stood up to address a lunch gathering of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum.
Canada's mining companies and their representatives have outspokenly opposed the private member's bill, which would give the government authority to investigate complaints against resources companies operating abroad, and withhold public money from offenders.
The bill aims to aims to address allegations of human rights abuses and environmental damage by Canadian firms operating abroad, but the industry itself says the legislation will do more harm than good.
After a couple of quips about being ready to dodge dinner buns or other projectiles from the audience, McKay launched into what he called a 'David Letterman-style' count down of the top five objections to Bill C-300.
The number-five criticism, according to McKay, was that the bill will damage the industry's reputation, by creating a forum for grievances against companies to be aired in public, whether or not they are true.
His response to this was that the complaints process would also allow firms to clear the air and defend themselves against allegations.
To objection number four, the claim that the bill will unleash a tsunami of complaints, McKay argued that the legislation provides for the dismissal of complaints if they are deemed frivolous.
“The rules of natural justice will apply. The case will have to be substantial, and shown to be substantial and a prima facie case to be answered.”
Industry representatives have argued that this will be difficult to implement in practice though.
Criticism number three was that, if the bill is passed, there will be a mass exodus of mining companies currently based in Canada.
Again, McKay dismissed the objection. “Canada is the centre for world mining. It has the best technology, it has the biggest companies, it has the most expertise and it has the most favourable conditions. Bill C-300 won't change any of that,” he insisted.
On the final two objections, McKay also argued against criticism that the legislation would destroy Canadian competitiveness, and that sanctions proposed by the bill are “draconian”.
'EXTREMELY POOR LEGISLATION'
After McKay concluded his remarks, Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada executive director Tony Andrews lost no time in, as he called it,“setting the record straight”.
While the Canadian industry agrees with McKay that there is a need to hold companies accountable for their actions, Bill C-300 is not the answer, he insisted.
The bill represents “extremely poor legislation and a very poor process,” that could be significantly damaging to the industry, Andrews said.
He pointed out that there are already systems and processes in place to address CSR, and that these should be fixed if there are problems or gaps, but that the place for such a debate is not a parliamentary committee.
Michael Bourassa, global mining group coordinator for law firm Fasken Martineau, which has spoken out publicly against the bill, added that McKay had omitted to mention a crucial problem that the industry sees in the bill.
The Canadian government, which should be supporting and assisting companies operating abroad, will be the one investigating any complaints made, he said.
“The fact that there is a complaint and an investigation by our very government could be used by other foreign governments against the activities of Canadian companies,” he told Mining Weekly Online after the event.
Foreign governments could end up withholding or taking away permits from Canadian firms, citing investigations that actually end up producing no evidence against the company, Bourassa said.
Andrews also pointed out that there had been no effort to consult the industry on the bill.
But McKay argued that the bill has included aspects recommended in a 2007 round-table report on corporate social responsibility , which was produced through extensive consultation across a range of Canadian industry stakeholders, including mining companies, but which, he said, was never fully implemented.
Although the government has now appointed a CSR counsellor, she has been given a “half mandate” with no investigative or punitive authority, he said.
McKay suggested that his legislation would not be necessary if Canada's Conservative government would implement the recommendations of the round table report.
“I'll hold my bill if the Prime Minister will implement those round-table reports,” he went so far as to say.