Ag, transportation ministers remain unknowns

It’s hard to figure out Transport Minister Marc Garneau. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much to figure when it comes to Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay.

Garneau is terminating the consultation process on the Canada Transportation Act review, a process that was not transparent, not extensive, not well-organized and not well communicated. The consultation is ending while many were still waiting to hear how the process would officially work.

Does this mean the major railways have bent Garneau’s ear and that the grain sector will be disappointed by how the Liberal government handles grain transportation issues?

Frankly, it’s too early to know. Garneau and the Liberals did extend for an additional year interswitching provisions and the ability for the government to set minimum grain movement volumes when many observers thought they wouldn’t.

Garneau hasn’t tipped his hand on exactly what he thinks. Does he swallow the spin doctoring of the railways or does he believe that appropriate regulations are needed to emulate a properly functioning marketplace, which is something the grain industry has been saying with amazing unanimity?

Garneau has been largely invisible to prairie farmers, but the former astronaut is no doubt very intelligent. The same cannot be said for all of his cabinet colleagues.

In former prime minister Steven Harper’s government, then Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz played a pivotal role on the grain transportation file. In Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay appears to be largely out of the loop and out of his league.

MacAulay came into his position with no agenda and very few opinions beyond motherhood and apple pie. The bureaucrats in his department, and there are some good ones, are likely to be more important in the development of agriculture policy than the minister.

As far as transportation goes, it’s unlikely that MacAulay’s views will matter, assuming he has any views in the first place.

The long-time backslapping politician probably knows a bit about the dairy industry and potatoes in his home province of Prince Edward Island, but there’s little evidence that he will ever have a firm command of the issues important to Western Canada.

If you follow MacAulay’s selfies on Twitter, he appears to spend a lot of his time attending anniversaries and birthdays in his home constituency. He doesn’t spend much time in the West.

It’s heartening that the Liberals have started work on the next agriculture policy framework well in advance of the expiry of Growing Forward 2, but some adept political stick handling may be needed to appease farmers and farm groups in the next year or two. It’s hard to imagine MacAulay accomplishing anything more than duck and run.

Unlike most times in the past 30 years, there’s no widespread farm income crisis. A caretaker minister has been able to limp through his first eight months in office, and pundits haven’t been too hard on him.

For Garneau, there’s hope that he has grasped grain transportation and will spearhead improvements. For MacAulay, unless he is being seriously underestimated, the best we can hope for is a different agriculture minister in Trudeau’s first cabinet shuffle.

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