Transport bill sparks calls for quick approval

MPs approve or adjust grain amendments but others are rejected; House now sends proposed legislation back to Senate

Farmers are once again urging quick passage of Bill C-49 in the Senate after the long-awaited transportation legislation moved back to the upper chamber.

The House of Commons May 3 approved Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s position on earlier Senate amendments to the bill. He approved some, including those related to grain shipping, with some adjustments, but amended or rejected others.

During debate, the Conservative opposition called on the government to accept all of the Senate amendments and send the bill directly for royal assent. The NDP voted with them on that motion, but the Liberal majority prevailed.

Agriculture critic John Barlow said the government should have supported amendments months ago when first put forward by the transport committee.

He said Garneau’s decision to require the Canadian Transportation Agency to seek the minister’s permission before investigating poor rail service diminishes the amendment.

“The minister mentioned that the Canadian Transportation Agency will now have own-motion powers to investigate any issues that may rise,” he said. “However, as part of that amendment, the authority to allow that investigation to happen is strictly at the feet of the minister.

“The minister took no action when the grain backlog was at its worst, from October right through to February…. How can our stakeholders trust that he will take action next time when a complaint or an issue is brought forward by the Canadian Transportation Agency?”

Conservative transport critic Kelly Block said the decision to require permission “makes the term ‘own motion’ a farce.”

“By definition, if the agency must seek political approval before beginning an investigation it does not possess ‘own motion,’ ” she said.

NDP critic Robert Aubin said grain producers have lived under uncertainty since the previous temporary legislation expired last Aug. 1 and pointed out that the Senate amendments are almost identical to what the House committee proposed last fall.

He said he was disappointed in the idea of ministerial approval for the CTA to conduct investigations, saying it completely changes the nature of the amendment.

“Once again, we are seeing the centralization of powers into the hands of a single person who holds the title of minister of transport,” he said. “Imagine how independent a Canadian Transportation Agency investigation will be if the agency has to first justify the ins and outs of that investigation to the minister.”

Grain stakeholders said last week the bill must be passed even though it’s not perfect.

Jeff Nielsen, president of Grain Growers of Canada, said farmers have been waiting 30 years for a revised transportation act.

Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevators Association, said in the case of the CTA amendment it’s likely the agency would meet with the minister anyway.

“We do concede that the bill isn’t perfect,” he said. “We’re of the strong view that we need to lock these changes in place, otherwise we could get paralyzed in the pursuit of perfection.”

The Canadian Oilseed Processors Association also said it endorsed the government decision.

It’s not yet known when the Senate will debate the bill again, but both houses must approve the bill before it can become law.

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