Tuesday September 02, 2014

Give Ritz some credit for action on backlog


Yes, it should have come months earlier .

Yes, it could have been much tougher.

And, yes, there may still be huge problems as to how the federal Conservative government views its role and how much power the railway lobby still has in Ottawa.

But after weeks of lobbying the federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to address the grain backlog in Western Canada, it baffles one’s mind as to why he shouldn’t get at least a little credit for doing pretty much what critics asked of him.

Chalk it up to the nature of politics.

By legislating potential $100,000 a day fines to Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways should either fail to move 500,000 tonnes a week, Ritz and his government have hopefully set a strong precedent that might actually help prevent farmers from getting hammered by the railways in future years.

“It’s far too little and it’s very, very late,” complained long-time Regina Wascana Liberal MP Ralph Goodale.

Like many others, Goodale blamed the problem on the Conservatives’ failure to heed warnings from farm groups and academics on the consequences of dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) as a single-desk seller.

There is something to be said for whatever role the CWB might have played in car allotment, but this does not mean — by any stretch of imagination — that the Wheat Board could have prevented this year’s huge mess. What we certainly do know is that it wouldn’t have allowed the option some farmers are now exercising of trucking their grain to the U.S. for better prices.

Sure, this isn’t something that every farmer can practically do. The only ones who would believe this is a viable solution are those farmers and farm groups blinded by their ideology. But those who continue to argue that the board was beloved by a vast majority are missing what’s really going on in much of rural Saskatchewan.

What’s been going on in rural Saskatchewan is a tough winter that’s run headlong into its long-standing battle with the duopoly rail system.

As loath as we should be to take CP President Hunter Harrison’s word on anything, the weather was a factor this year.

Of course, the weather was far less of factor than Harrison’s decision to take 400 locomotives and 11,000 railcars out of service and cutting staff by 4,500 to “maximize shareholder value.” Neither farmers nor politicians should forget this.

But now that Harrison and CN know that the government isn’t quite as “loathe to intervene” as Ritz initially suggested, maybe it will prevent the railways from doing this again.

By sending out a clear signal that there would be economic consequences in the future should the railways try to pull this nonsense again, Ritz and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt have hopefully put Harrison and the railways on notice for future years. That was the real point of the announcement.

Of course, that is still not good enough for critics like Goodale and provincial NDP agriculture critic Cathy Sproule who insisted fines are a slap on the wrist to the railways and grain movement quotas are nothing more than what the railways already said they would do.

“Today’s announcement does nothing to compensate producers that have lost billions,” Sproule said. “And the 5,500 cars required from each company only reflect what the rail companies have already promised for spring.”

By if the movement quotas are no more than what the railways planned to do, what is the point of arguing where the fines should go? By your own logic, there won’t be any fines at all _ let along enough to offset the often-quoted $5 billion in lost income for western farmers.

Yes, the Conservatives could have done more. But maybe Ritz deserves a little credit for what he did do.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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