In Debate: Bill C-49, Transportation Modernization Act

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, once again this Parliament has been presented with a poorly and hastily crafted omnibus bill that would undermine workers' fundamental rights to privacy and protect the rights of investors.

It is hard to see any difference in policy between the current government and the one that went before. The disparity between Liberal election promises and Liberal actions in government is painful. Where is the promise to end the use of undemocratic omnibus legislation, so decried by the Liberals in opposition? Like the Conservatives before them, the Liberals are subjecting Canadians and members of this House to unworkable and flawed, now Liberal, omnibus bills.

Bill C-49, for all its omnibus bulk, contains only two measures New Democrats can support. We believe in the measures that would improve the rights of air travellers and the protections for grain shippers. These ideas are positive improvements to the status quo. For that reason, we are calling on the government to sever these two initiatives from the pointless and ineffective remainder of Bill C-49 so they can be studied at committee and passed into law.

As for the rest of Bill C-49, we will vote against it, and I will tell members why. Bill C-49 would amend the Canada Transportation Act, giving the minister of transport the power to approve joint-venture arrangements between airlines. This is worrisome, because that type of arrangement could proceed with the minister's approval even if the commissioner of competition found that it was anti-competitive, and it could increase the price of airline tickets. Let me repeat: it would give the minister of transport the final word on proposed joint ventures between airlines, and once an arrangement was approved, the Competition Tribunal could no longer prohibit it.

The NDP proposed deleting clause 14 of Bill C-49, because it would expose consumers to unfair increases in airline ticket prices, yet that clause remains. The bill would also increase the limit on foreign ownership of Canadian airlines from 25% to 49%, despite a University of Manitoba study, published on Transport Canada's own website, that demonstrated that this measure would have no positive impact on competition.

Most concerning, Bill C-49 would amend the Railway Safety Act to allow railway companies to use video and voice recorders, and despite the fact that the bill would risk violating section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by authorizing the government or employers to collect private information without instituting adequate protections, the Liberals rejected NDP amendments to limit the use of these recorders.

Locomotive voice and video recordings should be accessible only to the Transportation Safety Board. There is nothing to stop individual railway companies from using them to attack workers' rights. In fact, there are a number of precedents in which CN and CP have attempted to attack workers' rights and privileges. New Democrats object to clause 14 for this reason.

If the government were truly serious about improving railway safety, it would revise the standards regarding train operator fatigue. Train operators are under pressure from employers to work unreasonable hours, and as such, this demand by employers represents a real danger to the safety of workers and the public.

There is a better way. Canada needs and deserves an affordable, accessible, reliable, and sustainable system of public rail transit, and Canadians have the right to the highest levels of service, protection, and accessibility of travel that can be provided. Instead, we see the erosion of infrastructure due to the neglect and corporate offloading of maintenance responsibilities, and passengers are subjected to the cancellation of rail services across the country.

Canada has a growing population, families with children, disabled Canadians, and senior citizens who need to travel. At the same time, Canadians are conscious of the environmental legacy we are creating for future generations. With proper stewardship and a visionary plan, we have the very real potential to revive our once thriving rail-travel industry. However, that kind of vision requires a federal government focused on national stewardship, rather than what both Liberal and Conservative governments did when they sold off national interests and pandered to those who bankrolled their campaigns.

It is because we need reliable rail service that I have drafted and tabled Bill C-370, which would create a clear mandate for VIA Rail Canada. Canadians are weary of the refusal by the current government, as well as Conservative and Liberal governments in the past, to acknowledge the economic and environmental benefits of a truly enhanced, integrated, accessible, and sustainable rail transit system that would far outweigh and outlive short-term political gain. Past governments have failed to understand that everyone, from the youngest Canadian to the seasoned commuter, benefits if rail travel is part of our future. I can tell members that this reality is not lost on the citizens of London and southwestern Ontario. They are the people who suffer from what is described, in the network southwest action plan, as the “mobility gap”.

Bill C-370 would provide the opportunity for Canadians and the current Parliament to evaluate cases where VIA Rail planned to eliminate a required router station. In addition, my bill would provide a legislative framework for VIA Rail's mandate as a crown corporation to make services mandatory, set minimum frequencies for certain itineraries, and increase levels of service with regard to punctuality. It would provide a transparent and democratic means to evaluate any proposed cancellation of service routes and a framework for managing and funding VIA Rail. It would help prioritize passenger trains where and when there were conflicts with freight trains and would create efficiencies. I encourage members on all sides of this House to support Bill C-370 when it comes to the floor for second reading.

In a previous parliament, the NDP introduced a bill setting out clear steps to establish a passenger bill of rights. The current Minister of Transport supported our bill. He could have followed our lead and introduced concrete measures to protect airline passengers but instead handed off responsibility for making regulations to the Canadian Transportation Agency.

The NDP proposal for a passenger bill of rights included measures to ensure that airlines would have to offer passengers the choice between a full refund and re-routing under comparable conditions when flights were cancelled. Air carriers that failed to comply would have to pay $1,000 in compensation to every passenger affected, in addition to the refund. Also, when an aircraft was held on the ground for more than one hour, the airline would have to provide passengers with adequate food, drinking water, and other refreshments, as well as compensation of $100 for each additional hour the flight was held on the ground.

Witness testimony tells us that such measures could result in flight cancellation rates four times lower than those experienced in Canada. The Liberals heard this testimony in committee, yet they rejected amendments from the NDP based on this solid evidence. It leads me to wonder what their motivation was and where their loyalties lie.

It is unacceptable for the government to shift the responsibility of protecting passenger rights to the Canadian Transportation Agency. Passengers and airlines need clear measures to discourage overbooking, and we need those measures now. The minister promised them for sometime in 2018. That is not good enough.

While our objections to Bill C-49 are many, I want to focus on one final point. Omnibus Bill C-49 would amend the Canada Marine Act to permit 18 port authorities to obtain financing from the Canada Infrastructure Bank. My New Democrat colleagues and I have spoken on the dangers of the Infrastructure Bank and will continue to do so as long as it exists as a loophole for selling off publicly funded infrastructure projects and public services to private corporations. We know that this transfer of public assets will allow private corporations to impose user fees and tolls on Canadians who have already paid hard-earned tax dollars for their public services.

Bill C-49 would allow private investors to provide loans to port authorities using the Infrastructure Bank. It would allow those private investors to charge high rates of interest on those loans, with the consumer footing the bill. In addition, ports whose building projects were valued at less than $100 million may not be eligible for Infrastructure Bank loans and so would be left without any resources. The cost of the required return on investment by these lenders could affect consumers, since many goods are transported through our ports.

New Democrats are wary of any legislation that shrouds the poisoned pill of selling off our valuable public assets and services to private corporations. Governments do not exist to serve private profits. At best, it appears that Liberals do not seem to understand that. At its cynical worst, they do understand and hope Canadians will not notice as they sell this country off to their corporate friends without any consideration for the public good. Either way, Bill C-49 is a flawed and poorly crafted piece of legislation that New Democrats cannot and will not support.

Ms. Kate Young (Parliamentary Secretary for Science, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, the member and I quite often come to the nation's capital on the plane together, so we quite often talk about transportation between London and Ottawa. We both are very interested in the future of transportation in our country.

I want to make sure that I understand that she would at least agree that the bill represents a first step. That is really what we are talking about here. Is it to provide Canadians with a safer, more reliable transportation system, whether it be air, rail, or whatever. This is the beginning of a longer process that we know is necessary for our country.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:

Mr. Speaker, I have been around this place for 12 years, and I am tired of tiny steps. I want something substantive and meaningful that is going to work for the travelling public of our country. In terms of the passenger bill of rights in the airline industry, it needs to be better and stronger. First steps are fine, but we do not get many chances. It is important to do it right the first time.

In regard to rail passenger service, we have an opportunity, with the Minister of Transport, to make real and definitive changes. We need a mandate for VIA Rail. We need it to serve the people of the country. In the last 25 or 30 years, all we have heard about are cuts in service, the closing of routes, and the elimination of the kind of service people would use and would enjoy using and would feel good about, because it would help our environment.

Mr. Arnold Viersen (Peace River—Westlock, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, one of the things covered in the bill is the joint ventures. Perhaps she addressed this and I did not catch that part. I was wondering if she could give her thoughts on the changes to the legislation in terms of joint ventures.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:

Mr. Speaker, I am very leery and concerned about joint ventures. If he is talking about the infrastructure bank, I have profound concerns in that direction. We have experienced P3s in Ontario. They are more expensive, they are slow, and they do not provide the kinds of services that are intended.

In the case of the infrastructure bank, we would be partnering up with corporate entities that are designed to invest to make profits. Public services are for the public, and they are financed by taxpayers, the working men and women in our country. They should never be subject to extra tolls or extra costs to use their own services. Public services must remain public.

It is like Ontario Hydro. Who in their wildest dreams would have believed that any government would sell off a public entity like Ontario Hydro? This is all part and parcel of that selling out the public for private corporate good.