Grain transportation bill stumbles on procedural glitch

An amendment to compensate shippers for delayed rail service was ruled out of order

Former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber has tripped up the government’s plan to allow farmers and grain companies to collect compensation from the railways for losses caused by delayed shipments.

It proved to be a temporary setback for the government, but it hinges on an important part of how laws are drafted in Canada.

Rathgeber, who became an independent MP in 2013 in a dispute over the tight controls exerted on Conservative MPs by the government, had objected to an amendment the government added to the grain transportation bill enabling the compensation. “To give a regulator compensatory power is an extraordinary measure, and that requires consultation with stakeholders and thorough debate at second reading.”

Speaker Andrew Scheer, who represents a Saskatchewan riding and is well aware of the support the compensation idea has among western farm groups, agreed the amendment was out of order last week and ordered it removed from the bill.

After his decision, the Commons agreed to return the bill to the agriculture committee for resolution. While Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz vowed the amendment would be restored, that approach could leave it at risk of being struck down by Scheer again.

The Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act passed second reading, also known as approval in principle, in March and had been referred to the agriculture study for study. The bill was rushed through committee review in three long meetings in one week. At the end of the process, the government added several amendments, including the one struck down by Scheer, and used its majority to approve them with little debate.

Rathgeber’s point was that the concept of the Canadian Transportation Agency ordering the railways to pay compensation has never been debated in Parliament. Nor was it ever approved in principle by MPs, so it could not be added to the law as an afterthought.

While it may seem like a fine point to annoyed grain farmers, the rule is intended to prevent government from making sweeping changes to legislation without any debate. Taken to the extreme, Canada could end up with a situation like the United States where unrelated provisions are tacked on to legislation by Congress.

Amendments are intended to clarify the provisions of a bill, not add completely new concepts to it, which is what the government was trying to do by making the CTA the arbitrator of claims by farmers and grain companies that the railways hadn’t fulfilled their contractual delivery obligations.

“The minister of agriculture may believe that this is a favourable amendment, and it may very well be,” Rathgeber said in his complaint to Scheer. “The problem is that it exceeds the authority of the original bill and provides quite an extraordinary remedy in that it gives the regulator the power to award damages in the absence of any procedural fairness, any rule of law, or any discoveries.”

The situation was resolved by late Monday, however, when Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced that Bill C-30 had passed third reading and had been referred to the Senate.

“Based on the feedback heard at Parliamentary committee, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food passed an amendment to Bill C-30 which would also create the authority for the Canadian Transportation Agency to order a railway to compensate shippers for expenses incurred as a result of a railway’s failure to fulfill its service obligations,” the ministers said.

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