Commentary: Two huge Harper failures in Western Canada

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A commentary by Ralph Goodale

Instead of impugning the integrity of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (which Stephen Harper seems to think is a politically popular tactic in some right-wing quarters), he should be focused on running a more competent government. On two major economic files, he has miserably failed western Canada.

One of those is western grain handling and transportation. It came up for debate in the House of Commons again last night.

After allowing the grain logistics system -- which these Conservatives, themselves, designed -- to crash for five long months last winter, stranding million of tonnes of grain on prairie farms and costing producers up to $8-billion in losses, the Harper government is now in the final stages of passing so-called remedial legislation (Bill C-30). From beginning to end, it has been a stumblebum performance.

They fiddled while Rome burned. Their belated action has not accomplished anything beyond what spring weather would have achieved in any event. It will take another five or six months to clear the backlog. The carryover into a new "crop year" on August 1st will be 23-million tonnes.

That means, with just a normal new crop in 2014, grain shippers will be facing the same volume challenges as last year. The Conservatives can provide no assurances that the chaos won't happen all over again.

There is no new capacity. No greater co-ordination. No contingency plan for bad weather.  Nothing to provide some equity for shippers in certain transportation "corridors" -- like those in the middle of Saskatchewan, for example, who get the poorest service on grain moving both west and east, while the railways provide no priority for shipments that should go south. Neither are there any safeguards for producer-cars or short-line rail operators.

Bill C-30 is an empty shell. It's largely "enabling" legislation, creating the power to enact future regulations. But no such regulations yet exist, and without them, the Bill is meaningless. Consultations haven't even begun. It will take weeks -- even months -- to put regulations in place. And then they'll expire in just two years.

Last night, the Transport Minister would give no guarantee that her regulations will define "service obligations", or lay out how performance will be measured, or provide "reciprocal penalties" when performance fails. Such Conservative indifference to farmers is astounding.

A second field of Conservative failure is in the natural resources sector -- the challenge of getting Canadian resources to export markets.

The biggest example is probably the Keystone-XL pipeline to and through the United States. Without that market access, the value of western Canadian petroleum production is artificially depressed. Gaining that access is directly related to Canada's environmental credibility.

The pipeline approval process in the US has been stalled for years and shows no sign of progress any time soon. Why? Because in so many domestic and international eyes, the Harper government is seen to be an environmental delinquent. In this day and age, global market access is conditional on resource developments being responsible and sustainable.

Instead of acknowledging this reality and taking steps to demonstrate Canada's environmental integrity, the Harper regime just thumbs its nose at the issue -- giving our country a black eye and hamstringing our growth and wealth potential.

Earning US approval for the Keystone-XL should have been a slam-dunk, but Mr. Harper's negligence, arrogance and belligerence have cost Canada dearly -- in both reputation and development. And nowhere is that Conservative failure more hurtful and expensive than in the West.

Ralph Goodale is the Member of Parliament for Wascana.

Organizations: Conservatives, House of Commons

Geographic location: Western Canada, United States, Saskatchewan

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