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Federal rail bill disappoints

Bill C-52 | MPs vote to pass Fair Rail Freight Service Act amid criticism from opposition

In the wee hours of May 30, Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux finally got to have his say about government legislation that gives shippers more market power in dealing with railways.

Debate on Bill C-52, the Fair Rail Freight Service Act, was grinding to an end at 12:40 a.m. when Lemieux — the parliamentary secretary to agriculture minister Gerry Ritz — rose as one of the last speakers.

The government had imposed a limit on debate and despite opposition complaints that the legislation did not give shippers enough power, all MPs voted later that day to approve the legislation and send it to the Senate for final approval this month.

Lemieux, an eastern Ontario rural MP, said the bill will help correct the current market imbalance between commodity shippers and railways.

“Our government is committed to ensuring that all shippers, including grain shippers, can negotiate agreements that bring greater clarity and predictability on service,” he said.

The legislation will allow shippers to appeal to the Canadian Transportation Agency for an imposed service agreement with penalties for railway violations if a satisfactory commercial agreement between shipper and railway cannot be negotiated.

Each violation of promised service performance could result in a $100,000 penalty, with the money going to the government.

Redress and compensation for producers would have to come from a court judgment against the carriers at extra legal costs against the shippers.

Lemieux said the possibility for hefty fines will make it more likely the legislation and court action will not be needed.

“This provision (appeal to the CTA) will be a powerful tool for our agricultural sector since it will strongly encourage shippers and rail companies alike to negotiate a commercial agreement,” he said.

“The Fair Rail Freight Service Act will help farmers grow their business.”

Opposition MPs, while ultimately supporting the bill, used the final debate to lament the fact that the Conservative government for a record 37th time imposed restrictions on the length of parliamentary debate.

And they continued to insist that Conservatives should have accepted proposals from shippers and the Opposition to strengthen shipper rights in the bill.

Opposition House leader Nathan Cullen followed Lemieux with praise for his fellow New Democrats and criticism of Conservatives’ refusal to accept amendments.

“New Democrats have stood in their places and said that while they will not sacrifice the good for the perfect, this is an opportunity for the Conservatives to continue to learn that they are not the experts in all things, that they should once in a while put a little water in their wine and have a little humility,” he said.

Brandon, Man. Conservative Merv Tweed, chair of the Commons agriculture committee, said that despite opposition criticism, the legislation is widely supported by producers.

“Most importantly, the (bill) would give shippers new tools to level the playing field in their relationship with the railways,” he said.

“The fundamental change would help to ensure the smooth and uninterrupted delivery of Canadian products to our customers.”

Regina Liberal Ralph Goodale told the House that while Liberals would support the bill, it could have been much better.

“There is significant disappointment not just in the House but in the shipping community,” Goodale said.

“The legislation does not fully achieve the objectives that the shipping community had been hoping for. They have been waiting for a long time.”

In fact, when the Conservative-dominated Commons transport committee rejected all opposition amendments, many of them based on proposals from the Coalition of Rail Shippers, CRS chair Bob Ballantyne said he was disappointed.

However, he said Bill C-52 should be passed because even in its flawed state, it is better than nothing.

“I think there is a lot of disappointment and a lot of skepticism about how effective this will be,” Ballantyne said.

“We’ll see but it’s all we’ve got at the moment so I think my members think we should support it but with disappointment.”

The debate now switches to the Senate where the coalition likely will suggest changes.

However, with little time to consider the bill before Parliament adjourns for the summer in late June, Conservative senators are unlikely to engage in extended debate or support amendments.

The government likely will end the current parliamentary session during the summer, returning in the autumn with a throne speech and a new agenda.

All legislation not passed into law by then would die.

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