Government’s transportation reform remains up in the air

Three years ago federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt held a joint press conference in Parliament’s main foyer.

The date was March 26. The matter at hand? Millions of tonnes of prairie grain were stranded in fields and bins across Western Canada — a logistics nightmare that resulted in a serious cash flow crunch.

Under immense public pressure to get the grain moving again, Ritz and Raitt tabled the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, emergency legislation designed as a temporary fix to a complicated issue.

Ottawa, the two ministers promised, would find a more permanent solution after the Canadian transportation system was reviewed by former cabinet minister David Emerson.

Now, fast-forward three years.

Ritz and Raitt are seated in Ottawa’s opposition benches. The Emerson review has been completed and submitted to Ottawa’s new Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

The Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act remains in effect, its original July 2016 expiration date extended by the House for one year last June.

Ottawa has promised to find a long-term fix — a solution, Garneau has said will be in place before the act expires this July.

He said he expects to present a new transportation bill this spring, but has given no specific date, nor has Ottawa given formal notice to the House of pending legislation. The timeline is getting tight.

The House of Commons is in the middle of its annual on again, off again, spring-sitting schedule.

The calendar shows MPs are scheduled to be in the House for the week of March 20, before returning to their ridings the last week of March. The House returns for two weeks in early April, before MPs take two weeks off for Easter break.

The Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act was introduced to Parliament March 26, 2014, and was passed in June after MPs and senators on both sides rushed to get the legislation in place. (The House agriculture committee held emergency meetings until midnight for nearly a week to get the bill through as fast as possible.)

Assuming a similar timeline, that means Garneau would need to present his plan to Parliament either next week or the first week of April. But that depends upon the House agenda not becoming tied up with other priorities.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said he will table his second federal budget March 22. Budgets and their subsequent debates often have a high capacity for tying up the House’s agenda.

Ottawa has also promised to reveal its plans around the decriminalization of marijuana this spring. It’s expected to be controversial and would fulfill a key campaign promise for the Liberals at a time when they’ve been criticized for having to renege on their electoral reform promises.

The path forward on the rail file depends on when Garneau decides to introduce the legislation, for which details have not yet been made public.

As part of the change, Garneau has promised to permit reciprocal penalties, which would hold grain shippers and railways accountable for meeting performance standards or face fines.

He has not said whether Ottawa will adjust the maximum revenue entitlement, which caps how much railways can charge for grain shipping or keep the extended interswitching distances, which enable smaller, short-line railways to use a competing company’s track, up to a certain distance.

The Liberals do have several procedural tools they could use to try and get the legislation passed in time, including time allocation and invoking closure on debate.

When they used those tactics on other pieces of legislation it sparked anger from opposition parties, which said it undercut the democratic process.

The government could also use its majority to extend the current temporary legislation under the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act.

Farmers, shippers and the country’s railways have waited a long time for an improved shipping system, one that can get Canadian grain to market in a reliable fashion. The system has been flagged by the finance minister’s advisory council as an area where there is an infrastructure deficit.

Ottawa can rest assured that any rushed fix will be scrutinized.

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