Michael Ignatieff: You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Some hours ago, votes were cast upon Liberal Member of Parliament John McKay’s Bill C-300, “An Act respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries.” First introduced to the House of Commons on February 9, 2010, during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament, and re-introduced on March 3, 2010, the bill was designed to hold Canada-based mining companies subsidized by Government accountable for human rights abuses committed abroad. The bill was defeated 140 to 134.

In September, former Liberal MP John Manley published a rebuttal of C-300, arguing that “the bill could result in […] companies losing business to corporations based elsewhere that do not have the same regard for environmental, safety and human rights standards” and “that it would encourage mining companies to locate in jurisdictions with less regulation and no commitment to corporate social responsibility.” Manley is today President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, a group which promotes the views and interests of (among others) Canada’s mining companies.

Manley could well be correct in these concerns. The first argument suggests one ought to aim low, that’s where the sure money is, and the second suggests it would be a loss to Canada if mining companies located their headquarters elsewhere. This second claim seems plausible enough, but Manley fails to substantiate it. How many jobs are we talking about? Presumably the Canadian Council of Chief Executives would have no need of a Canadian President and CEO if the companies were to move to, say, China. Beyond that, it is less clear what is at stake. In any case, Manley says “Canadian companies are already among the most socially and environmentally responsible companies operating internationally.” No problems.

Why do Liberals always suppose they can have it every which way? Liberal leader and chronic vote-evader Michael Ignatieff told the caucus not to attend the vote, and stayed away himself. Why? Because he didn’t want to have to vote for it, and he didn’t want to have to vote against it, either. Instead, he prefers to say he has “reservations” about the bill but “favours its principles”:

This is a private member’s bill. I’ve made my reservations about the bill known for months, but I think it sends a very important message about corporate social responsibility.

After the vote he said, “despite the defeat of C-300, the Liberal Party remains committed to the important principle of corporate social responsibility for Canadian industries at home and abroad.” What however is the nature of “commitment” for a leader who refuses even to commit himself to a vote? Nor is this the first time Ignatieff has made this manoeuvre. The technical term for this posturing, by the way, is shit eating — from which one may infer that Mr Ignatieff, the man who would be Prime Minister of Canada, is a shit eater, or eater of shit.

All of this would be mere silliness if it were not the case that Canadian mining companies are indeed responsible for human rights abuses throughout Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. A report, “Corporate Responsibility: Movements and Footprints of Canadian Mining and Exploration Firms in the Developing World,” has become part of the latest controversy concerning the industry. This is a topic with which I’ve been familiar for twenty years, having first researched it as a University student at Queen’s. That mining companies thrive on low standards is something they themselves admit when they warn against capital flight. It is as unsurprising and predictable as, say, the perennial spinelessness of a Liberal leader.

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