Maybe it’s a good thing that Parliament is quiet this week. House Liberals and senators will have a chance to re-examine their dispute over Bill C-49.
Their actions so far on the omnibus transportation bill that, among other things, addresses grain movement on Canada’s railways, appear to be the product of a power struggle.
The bill’s genesis was the 2013-14 grain transportation backlog, but it has been before the House of Commons for a year.
While Conservative senators have opposed the bill, a few Liberals and independent senators also dissented.
Known as the Transportation Modernization Act, C-49 retains maximum revenue limits on railways but changes the formula to include capital spending, imposes reciprocal financial penalties in service level agreements between shippers and railway companies, and increases the powers of the Canadian Transportation Agency so it can make faster decisions.
But it also deals with an airline passenger bill of rights, and raises ownership limits on airlines. The Liberals insisted on keeping all this in one bill.
That’s one reason for the delay. There are others.
Liberal senators are liberated from party status, meaning they have more leeway to act on their own.
And the bill covers so much territory. That meant senators recommended 18 amendments, an abnormally high number.
There is also a regional issue: Maritimes senators say they have a constitutional responsibility to ensure all regions are treated equally, and this bill, they say, does not do that on the issue of rail transportation.
On grain movement, the bill attempts to strike a balance between allowing rail companies a measure of enterprise, while providing enough oversight that there should be no need for actions such as the order in council on service levels that addressed the 2013-14 transportation crisis.
Just about every farm group has said it can live with the inadequacies of the bill, so long as it’s passed with the key provisions intact. Those groups include the Grain Growers of Canada, all three prairie provincial associations, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Many organizations have suggestions for how the bill could be improved, but most have said they can live with what’s there.
Except the Senate, which voted 43-39 last week to reject the bill for the second time. That hasn’t happened in 12 years.
Two Senate amendments are now at the centre of the dispute: interswitching in the Maritimes and final offer arbitration for freight rates, which is supported by shippers in the agriculture, mining and forestry sectors. The Liberals rejected those measures but last week the Senate put them back in the bill and sent it back to the House.
Karen McCrimon, parliamentary secretary to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, has said the government doesn’t agree with the two amendments, which means the bill is likely to be fired right back to the Senate when the House votes, probably on May 22. There is no formula to end this standoff.
It’s of some consolation that Conservative Senate leader Larry Smith told the National Post that it’s the Senate’s “responsibility to defer at a certain point in time” to the elected House of Commons.
Farm groups want the bill in place by Aug. 1 because it will take several months to negotiate contracts based on the bill.
It looks like reason will prevail and the bill will be passed before Parliament adjourns for the summer. Failure to do so would be an irresponsible denial of elected representatives’ obligations to Canadian agriculture.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.