Passing transportation bill before June will be a challenge

Parliament will have its work cut out for it on the transportation file when it returns April 16.

Just before adjourning for the Easter break, the Senate passed a heavily amended version of Bill C-49, which is the Liberals’ proposed overhaul of the Canadian transportation system.

In total, the Senate transportation committee passed 19 amendments — three of which directly apply to the rail transportation section of the bill.

Farmers, shippers and the railways all want the legislation passed before Parliament rises for its summer recess in June and before the start of the next crop year.

The question in legislative circles is whether that timeline is doable.

Technically both the House of Commons and the Senate have passed a version of Bill C-49 at third reading, which is the last step required by both houses of Parliament before a royal assent ceremony is held to make the bill law.

However, a bill cannot become law until both chambers have agreed to the same version of the bill. This includes amendments.

Under parliamentary procedural rules, amendments made by the Senate are referred to as “messages,” which are sent to the House of Commons for consideration. The House of Commons as a whole must decide whether it will accept those specific amendments, reject them or make their own changes.

The 19 amendments include giving the Canadian Transportation Agency “own motion powers,” which allows the CTA to investigate reports of poor service or service issues without requiring a formal complaint. It’s a longstanding request by shippers and the CTA itself, but one that the Liberals on the House of Commons transportation committee rejected last fall.

Senators also added soybeans to the maximum revenue entitlement and made changes to Ottawa’s proposed long haul interswitching program. Both amendments have also been requested by shippers.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who has publicly insisted that the legislation is balanced, has said he cannot support at least one Senate amendment, which limits the amount of time passengers can spend on the tarmac without food or water to 90 minutes.

The remaining 18 amendments, he’s said, will be scrutinized over the next two weeks. A decision on their fate is not expected before Parliament returns in mid-April.

However, the transport minister’s decision to reject at least one of the Senate’s amendment means Parliament is setting itself up for an interesting legislative negotiation in the next few weeks.

There are a few scenarios to consider:

Scenario A: The Liberals use their majority in the House to reject all 19 Senate amendments. The Senate accepts that decision and the bill receives royal assent.

Scenario B: The Liberals use their majority to strip all 19 amendments from the bill. The Senate decides to put them all back in and sends the bill back to the House of Commons for re-consideration.

Scenario C: The Liberals use their majority in the House to accept some of the amendments, but not others. A message would be sent back to the Senate informing them of their selections. Senators would then need to decide whether they agree with the House of Commons. If they do, then the bill would be sent to the governor general for royal assent. If they don’t, amendments can be added back in, and those messages are sent back to the House of Commons for reconsideration. This continues until agreement is reached.

Scenario D: A “conference” is called. This is rare and occurs only when the House and the Senate reach an impasse. Think of it as a kind of mediation where both sides send a negotiator to try and reach a deal. The sides either agree to a compromise, agree to the same amendments or continue to disagree, in which case the bill dies on the order paper.

There is a maximum of nine weeks left in the House of Commons sitting calendar. To say the next few weeks will be interesting is an understatement.

Let the negotiations begin.

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