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Politics Politicking in a grain crisis: a bill’s delay-plagued march forward

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz stands in the House of Commons during Question Period in Ottawa, Monday April 23, 2012.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After an error, a standoff and other delays, a federal bill aimed at easing a multibillion-dollar backlog of Prairie grain is set to become law this month.

That would cap a nine-week journey for Bill C-30, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act – a bill Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz hoped to pass "as quickly as possible." Instead, it met delays by government, the Speaker, an Independent MP and a Liberal senator. Finger-pointing ensued.

"If [Conservatives] want to know who delayed this bill, tell them to get a mirror," Liberal Senator Terry Mercer said Thursday. Conservative Senator Don Plett blamed delays in the House, and made a promise to Mr. Ritz: "It will get through the Senate faster than it got through the House."

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The saga began with complaints by Prairie farmers who had a bumper crop of grain and too few rail cars to ship it in. In response, Ottawa passed an Order in Council on March 7, forcing railways to ship more grain. It would last for 90 days.

A more permanent measure, Bill C-30, was tabled March 26. It sets minimum shipment levels for railways, allows grain shippers to seek federally ordered reimbursements from railways in certain cases and opens up railroads to foreign competition.

It soon met roadblocks. A Conservative-dominated committee added an amendment, the one allowing shippers to seek reimbursement. It would be found out of order because it went beyond the scope of the bill, a tactical error on the part of the government. Railways were blindsided and found an MP to object – Brent Rathgeber, a lawyer who raised a point of order April 8. The amendment "appeared to be procedurally unfair," he said.

It would be, however, up to Speaker Andrew Scheer – an MP from Saskatchewan, where the grain bill was being closely watched – to kill the amendment. The bill's progress was halted until he did.

Early on April 30, the House of Commons procedural clerk sent notice to some MPs saying Mr. Scheer would rule that day on Mr. Rathgeber's objection. Later that morning, the issue was discussed in the Conservative caucus meeting, sources say. Shortly after the meeting, the procedural clerk sent another memo – Mr. Scheer, who does not attend caucus, would not rule on the issue after all.

Mr. Scheer's office says delays are common, while Mr. Rathgeber calls the ordeal "very peculiar." The next day, the procedural clerk gave 51-minutes notice to Mr. Rathgeber, via e-mail, that Mr. Scheer would finally rule.

The government and other parties, who support the bill, planned to seek unanimous consent to overrule the Speaker's ruling and press forward, several sources say. Mr. Rathgeber is not normally in the House on Thursday mornings. With 51 minutes notice, however, he arrived. It was a standoff.

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"He had made it clear to those in the House around him that he was determined to sit there for as long as it took" and deny unanimous consent, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale recalled, who stressed that he doesn't blame Mr. Rathgeber for the error. "… The problem here rests entirely with Mr. Ritz. He failed to do [the amendment] right in the first place."

The Speaker struck down the amendment but said "very simple and straightforward procedural options" could restore it. The bill was sent it back to committee where the clause was restored. Days later, the bill passed and headed to the Senate.

Only then did the Senate Liberals appoint a critic, Mr. Mercer. He needed a briefing, delaying his speech on the bill to May 13.

The Senate committee has since plowed ahead, but MPs and senators don't sit next week. The committee expects to finish with the bill May 26, and senators told The Globe they expect it to become law that week. The Order in Council expires June 6.

Mr. Goodale summed the ordeal up this way: "It just looks pretty sloppy from beginning to end."

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