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Truckers relish Flaherty's meal writeoff Add to ...

Tuesday evening and the special is meatloaf.

Monday is hamburger, Wednesday roast pork, Thursday roast turkey and cranberry sauce, Friday fish and chips -- soup, potatoes, vegetables, coleslaw and Big Rig's Bun all thrown in for $9.95.

Welcome to the Antrim Truck Stop.

"Coffee to start?" the waitress asks -- "no" clearly unacceptable as she stands there with steaming pot half-cocked to pour.

"Sure."

"Know what you're going to have?"

If I were really a trucker, I'd go for the Jim Flaherty Special -- though not officially named that on the all-day menu: eggs and steak, $14.95, $11.96 of which will soon be considered a business expense, thanks to the big-hearted Conservatives -- a welcome improvement over the $7.48 writeoff that the Liberals allowed truckers.

And given that truckers make up the largest occupational group in the country -- 217,000 counted in 2004 -- that not only adds up to a lot of savings, but likely a few votes.

When Finance Minister Flaherty tabled his 2007 budget on Monday, the truckers' meal writeoff went immediately to 60 per cent and will be raised to the maximum 80 per cent over the next five years. At that point, it will be back to what truckers once enjoyed in the days before then Liberal finance minister Paul Martin began his attack on the federal deficit.

This is not exactly lunch money, as the new measure will cost federal revenues $15-million in the fiscal year beginning April 1 and $25-million in 2008-2009.

In early January, the Lunchbag Letdown Campaign was launched by the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the Owner/Operators' Business Association of Canada and Teamsters Canada. They put 200,000 postcards addressed to the Finance Minister in stops like this right across the country, and thousands of the cards poured into Flaherty's office during the dozen weeks between the start of the postcard campaign and the federal budget.

The truckers didn't really expect to win. At one point they got an official response from a departmental spokesperson that went like this: "The limitation is intended to reflect the personal consumption element inherent in these expenditures, while recognizing that a portion of these expenses are incurred to earn income and should therefore be deductible."

Truck industry translators are still working on that one.

The writeoff was also referred to as an "entertainment" expense, which caused some truckers to chuckle. Who, exactly was being entertained by sitting, alone, in a far corner of a truck stop trying to decide between tube steak (bologna) and the meatloaf special?

"It's great," Michel Charette says. "It helps."

The 39-year-old trucker from Gatineau, Que., is on his way to Minnesota this week with a load of newsprint picked up in the Maritimes. Five and six days a week he's on the road, hauling mostly to the U.S. Midwest and the eastern seaboard. Less than three years ago he bought his own truck for $126,000 and already has 546,000 kilometres on the odometer.

Charette "lives" on the road -- his four-year-old daughter's birthday party has been put on hold until he gets back -- and with soaring fuel costs he's tried to cut back on meal expenses by carrying frozen food along in a small freezer and cooking it in the microwave that is installed in the back of his cab.

"This will make a difference," he says, heading into the modern truck stop for a proper meal.

"It's a depressed industry," says Jack Cameron, who owns and operates the Antrim stop with his wife, Gail. "It's about time they did something for truckers.

"Maybe now some of these guys will be able to stop carrying fridges around with them and go into restaurants instead."

"It's a good thing, that's for sure," adds Jordan Patience, stopping by while hauling wood shavings from Pembroke to a plant in Cornwall, Ont.

Patience is an anomaly in Canadian trucking: 23 years old, just starting out, already with his own rig and running up 175,000 kilometres a year from his base in Southwestern Ontario.

Industry experts claim North America is facing a "crisis" in long-haul trucking. Transport Canada says as much as 80 to 90 per cent of all shipping in Canada is done by truck, with cross-border traffic worth more than $500-billion a year. The business appears to be there, but the truckers aren't. The U.S. has a shortage of 20,000 long-haul drivers and the shortfall in Canada is just as severe. With so many drivers over the age of 50, the shortfall is expected to worsen in coming years.

Young drivers shy away from a job that requires extended periods away from home, long lonely hours on the road and, for those who own their own trucks, soaring expenses -- especially fuel costs.

Cutting back somewhat on those rising expenses is one reason the All-Day Breakfast at $14.95 will look a lot more appetizing with an 80-per-cent writeoff than it did Monday morning with 50 per cent.

"Sounds good to me," says Patience as he heads for a seat in the restaurant.

But will it affect his vote? He stops, smiles, shakes his head no.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

 

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