Grits win big… but what does it mean for us?

by David Bradley

Jean Chretien, the little guy from Shawinigan, confounded critics last month and led his Liberals to a third consecutive majority.

According to some observers, the election, which had no overriding themes or announcements, handed the Prime Minister a blank cheque for the next five years.

Having silenced his critics and vanquished the Alliance, Chretien will be setting the agenda for his next term in office alone (or rather, with the help of a few close and loyal allies in the PMO). What will that agenda be?

It’s hard to tell, but we can expect a number of changes. Health care, tax reduction and changes to Employment Insurance will certainly be among the priorities of the new government.

We will have to wait until the speech from the throne, expected in February, and the announcing of the new cabinet, to get a better idea of the new government’s longer term priorities. However, we do know that the Prime Minister is a cautious politician and is unlikely to stray far from the script that has served him so well. Will that mean there is nothing new for the trucking industry? Not necessarily.

Over the next few months, a couple of things will play in our favor.

First of all, Chretien will use this mandate to establish his political legacy, to create a program that will define his place in the history books.

Rebuilding Canada’s highways, one project our industry has been pushing for for years, might fit his legacy agenda. The Liberal caucus supports this idea: during the months leading up to the election, many MPs were calling for the twinning of the Trans-Canada.

The Liberals likely chose not to announce a highway program during the election campaign because its cost and scope would have thrown their tax cuts and health care spending message out the window. But the election is won and the PM likes infrastructure projects – he was elected in ’93 on the basis of a $6 billion public-works program.

The next year or so will be pivotal in the development of a new national highway program.

Over the last several years, the CTA has pushed aggressively on two fronts: hours-of-service rules and harmonized safety ratings. While neither issue is top of mind for Canadians, both issues-for different reasons-are highly controversial.

In the case of hours of service, the protest from the anti-truck lobby over the Canadian Council of Motor Truck Administrators’ proposal to modernize Canada’s old regime appears to have spooked people.

Notably, certain provincial politicians, whose transportation departments still support the proposal but who would want Ottawa to carry the can alone, are afraid of a voter backlash back home.

With safety ratings, the issue is different in that the provinces have been unwilling or unable to agree on common approaches to safety standards. The result has been a hodgepodge system that increases compliance costs and invites avoidance. It would seem that the National Safety Code remains only a suggestion.

Until today, Ottawa has been unwilling to risk a showdown with provincial governments over this issue – even though extraprovincial trucking is its constitutional responsibility. However, with the federal minister of transport poised to amend the Motor Vehicle Transportation Act, as well as release an independent study that chastises governments over the ratings mess, the time is ripe for some Parliament Hill muscle.

In both instances, the federal government can now move decisively. With the election over and won, the government can take some controversial steps to rectify long-standing problems. The question is, will it?

While I don’t like to make predictions when it comes to political issues, there is every reason to believe that Ottawa will adopt a revised federal standard on hours of service. Whether they will admit it or not, I also believe that this is what the provinces want. I anticipate that once the federal government moves and Canada is hailed as a world leader in fatigue management, those provinces that are presently too timid to do the right thing will say that they supported the new measures all along.

A resolution of the hours-of-service issue would also boost prospects of achieving consistent, national carrier safety ratings. However, on this point-and this may be my own fatigue of the matter-I am less optimistic. Resolving this issue, which really means resolving the lack of uniformity surrounding the National Safety Code, will require a strong federal initiative, one that may be viewed as a power grab by some of the provinces. It also means providing enough funding to boost provincial co-operation, and a willingness to withhold the funds to uncooperative provinces. Perhaps this should even be tied to infrastructure funding.

Is the Prime Minister prepared to take these steps, or allow his minister of transport to lead the way?

We should get a sense early in the new mandate. n

– David Bradley is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.