OTTAWA — Marc Garneau’s hope that the Senate would approve an air passenger rights bill by Christmas failed to take off Tuesday during a hearing marked by strong rebukes and a fiery exchange between the transport minister and a former Liberal party operative.
The Liberals had been pushing the upper chamber to pass a transportation bill that would set the stage for a new air passenger bill of rights, make changes to rail safety rules and affect grain shipments.
Transport committee members, however, killed any hope Garneau had of convincing them to fast-track the legislation, putting off until next year any changes that would affect air travellers caught up in delays or bounced from flights, as well as grain farmers hoping to more easily move their crop to market by rail.
Garneau blamed the media for the perception that the legislation, once passed, would itself enact a passenger bill of rights, rather than simply clear the way for one. He then took aim at Sen. Terry Mercer, an independent Liberal, for suggesting Garneau has said otherwise.
In any event, travellers would have to wait until 2018 for a passenger rights bill because the Canadian Transportation Agency would be in charge of crafting the rules.
“I’ve explained it a million times, but the perception is out there,” Garneau said. “Senator, you’re on this committee. I expect that you know what’s in the bill and that you’re telling me that I’ve created this perception is frankly a little bit surprising.”
Garneau said the Liberals never intended to enshrine the bill of rights in legislation, because that would have made it more difficult to make any future changes. He said people should wait to see what the arm’s-length agency crafts.
Mercer replied, “Perhaps it should be in the bill, minister, then we wouldn’t have the controversy.”
The legislation would set rules and fines for airlines in situations where a passenger has been bumped from an overbooked flight, suffered lost or damaged luggage or endured an overly long wait on the tarmac – but only when the carrier is responsible.
The bill would also requiring voice and video recorders in locomotives.
Senators chided Garneau for crafting an omnibus piece of legislation that the government refuses to split.
Committee chairman Sen. David Tkachuk called the government audacious for accusing the Senate of stalling the bill, saying the Liberals instead be placing the blame at their own feet.
“The problem with this government is that it wants an independent Senate when necessary, but not necessarily an independent Senate when that doesn’t suit its purposes.”