Grain transportation system reform goes off the rails again

Time is ticking on the Liberals’ attempts to reform Canada’s grain transportation system.

Bill C-49, the Transportation Modernization Act, has been stuck in the Senate since Nov. 2 — despite promises from Transport Minister Marc Garneau that the bill would be in place by the end of the year.

The House of Commons is expected to rise for its Christmas break no later than Dec. 15. The Senate is expected to rise shortly after.

Garneau was scheduled to appear in front of the Senate transport committee Dec. 12 on Bill C-49. It’s the first committee hearing on the legislation.

As of Dec. 11, no additional meetings have been planned to try to fast-track the legislation through the Senate.

Conservative Senator David Tkachuk from Saskatchewan chairs the Senate’s transport committee, but the bill’s adjournment (the mechanism by which legislation is being passed through the legislative process) is being overseen by former Liberal senator Terry Mercer.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have had a tumultuous relationship with the Senate. In 2014, the prime minister kicked all 32 then-Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus and made them sit as independents. It was a surprise move, one that caught Hill watchers on all sides off guard.

“The only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the people of Canada,” Trudeau said at the time.

The senators were none too pleased, and vowed to take full advantage of their new-found party independence. The Senate has long been billed as the chamber of sober second thought.

At the time it didn’t really matter — the Conservatives held a majority in the Senate and remained members of their party’s caucus.

Fast forward four years.

The independents now hold the majority in the Senate, thanks to recent appointments. They’ve also taken their independence to heart.

The senators are not afraid to push back against the House of Commons and the governing Liberals — a position they made very clear when they threatened to hold up the government’s entire 2017 budget implementation legislation in June.

Meanwhile, the Liberal government, which is desperate to start passing legislation and change the channel away from embattled Finance Minister Bill Morneau, have no mechanism to ensure the legislation gets passed.

Cue Bill C-49. It’s a piece of legislation that started as Ottawa’s long-awaited response to the grain transportation woes of 2013 and has since evolved into a mega-overhaul of Canada’s transportation system, including the introduction of video cameras in locomotives and the Liberals’ coveted airline passenger bill of rights.

The problem: not everyone is a fan of the airline passenger bill of rights proposal. Many say it doesn’t go far enough, while few are convinced the legislation will make much difference for travel-weary Canadians.

Meanwhile Canadian agriculture — the sector for which the fast-tracked review was launched in the first place — has seen temporary grain transportation measures expire with no extension.

The likelihood that Bill C-49 would get held up somewhere along the legislative process is not surprising.

However, the Liberals likely only have themselves to blame for the fact the grain section of the bill isn’t already law.

Last spring, before the House of Commons rose for its summer recess, the Conservatives and NDP (many of whom remember the 2013 crisis) offered to pull out the grain piece of the legislation so that it could be fast-tracked separately.

The Liberals refused. They insisted — and continue to insist — that the bill amends one piece of legislation and should therefore remain whole.

Instead, the Liberals offered to call the House of Commons transport committee back in September, before the House returned this fall, to work on the legislation.

Now, Garneau wants the Senate transport committee to do the same thing. The Senate has shown no interest in doing so.

And so the stalemate continues.

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