Scores of heavy hitters from the grain industry are meeting at a downtown Ottawa hotel this week to celebrate “the dawn of a new era in Canada’s grain industry.”
Who could argue?
It has been a tumultuous year in the grain industry, particularly on the Prairies: the most dramatic in decades if not the last half-century or more.
The CWB monopoly is gone after 69 years, the century-old Canadian Grain Commission is about to undergo a dramatic change in how it does business with more to come and changes to the variety registration system are on the radar.
So when the Canadian Grains Council/Grain Growers of Canada industry symposium opens this week, there is much on the plate. It has become the go-to national grain conference.
A who’s who of the industry gathers, from the CWB and private grain company executives to trade negotiators, biofuel analysts and experts on government policy.
A full plate of issues, you might say.
Well, not quite.
One of the key issues the industry has lobbied for over the years, an issue that has been featured at previous conferences, appears to be absent this year.
What ever happened to the promised federal legislation to legislate rail service standards for shippers?
It seems to have fallen off the agenda.
For more than a year, transport minister Denis Lebel has had a report on the rail service issue that indicates deep industry unhappiness about service and railway opposition to new regulations.
For five months, the minister has had a report from former Alberta finance minister Jim Dinning, who recommended the two sides try to work things out through voluntary service agreements but who also acknowledged deep divisions.
At the time, Lebel urged voluntary agreement but made it clear that legislation was in the works as a backstop to make sure carriers played by the rules.
In June, Coalition of Rail Shippers chair Bob Ballantyne said the government had given notice that legislation was in the works. Shippers who argue that the power balance between carriers and shippers is too one-sided to produce a functional voluntary service agreement system were told to get their comments in by the end of July.
“We expect legislation in the fall for sure,” he said in late June.
Yet with the autumn session of Parliament due to end in three weeks, there has been no government indication of impending legislation.
Regina Liberal MP Ralph Goodale can say he told us so.
In the summer, the former agriculture minister predicted that railway lobbyists would use the summer to “stifle” any government move to create legislation.
“They clearly hope this will go away.”
As a veteran of railway lobbying during 13 years in Liberal governments, Goodale said the railways will try to delay legislation until the government loses interest.
Lebel has three weeks to prove Goodale wrong, but so far he has shown little public interest in the file.
And the grain industry meeting doesn’t even have it on the agenda.
Perhaps organizers know that legislation is pending, but then wouldn’t the shipper meeting be a perfect place to announce it?
Rail service seems to be a file that has slid off the radar of government priorities, which is odd for a government with a strong rural base.