Gov’t introduces rail service legislation | Opposition parties have misgivings that they’ll raise once bill reaches committee
All parties in Parliament are pledging fast approval-in-principle for rail service legislation that would give commodity shippers the right to demand a level-of-service agreement with carriers.
Debate on Bill C-52 began Feb. 1 and continues this week with a general pledge of early co-operation and fast initial approval.
The government has made the bill a priority for winter or spring passage, and NDP House leader Nathan Cullen told the House of Commons his party will vote for the bill at second reading to get it to committee hearings.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale promised that his party will support the bill and has “no intention of delaying this legislation, either in the House or in committee.”
However, the political co-operation may well evaporate once the bill is sent to the House of Commons transport committee for detailed study and public hearings.
The NDP is demanding extensive hearings and significant amendments to strengthen shipper protection.
“We hope the government will be open to all witnesses right across the spectrum and will actually listen to what is being said so that if we need to strengthen this legislation, which we believe we do, then the government is open to that, which has not been past practice in this place,” said Cullen.
In fact, major reforms to food safety legislation, the Canadian Grain Commission and abolition of the CWB monopoly were all dealt with by the Conservative-dominated agriculture committee last year with limited witness lists, extended meetings and little time for opposition MPs to absorb testimony and propose amendments.
Goodale also vowed that the Liberal party wants to be sure shippers have a full say and that MPs have a chance to improve and strengthen the bill if that is what shippers want.
When opposition MPs complained about the years it took the Conservatives to introduce legislation, Winnipeg-based minister of state for transport Steven Fletcher offered a glimpse of Conservative impatience with parliamentary proceedings that drag out.
“If the member is very concerned about it taking six years, may I ask if his party would delay this legislation another six years or will the New Democrats pass it with unanimous consent?” he asked.
In the past, the majority Conservative government has often counted in days rather than weeks or months the amount of time it allows for parliamentary debate on priority bills.
The legislation allows shippers facing rail service problems the right to apply for Canadian Transportation Agency arbitration to have a service agreement imposed as long as they have tried and failed to negotiate a commercial agreement.
Fines of up to $100,000 for each infraction could be levied if the railway then fails to live up to the service level promised.
Fletcher said the legislation should enhance the relationship between shippers and carriers.
Goodale’s response was that shipper reaction has been generally positive but MPs must confirm that at committee. He had some criticisms but indicated the party would follow the shipper lead.
The NDP was more negative, insisting the legislation is a “first step” but badly in need of improvement, including inclusion of existing contracts and an increase in potential fines.