Idle Times

Joe Comuzzi is the kind of federal MP that truckers should know well. Before he was elected to Parliament in 1988, Comuzzi was a lawyer in Thunder Bay, Ont., whose client roster included local trucking companies, so he has more insight into the industry and its concerns than most politicians do. What’s more, Comuzzi has been a member of the transport committee in the House of Commons for much of his 10 years in Ottawa, and he heads a Liberal caucus committee that’s pushing for a program to rebuild the national highway system. But when Comuzzi stakes out a position on infrastructure or transport regulation, it’s rarely at the persistent urging of truckers. “We never hear from them,” he says.

If truckers haven’t met Joe Comuzzi, they should know Stan Keyes. He’s from Hamilton, Ont., and has been chairman of the transport committee and Parliamentary secretary for transport. He played a large role in the drafting of the new Canada Marine Act, and his understanding of the transport portfolio is as deep as that of any recent minister. But in his decade as an MP, Keyes says the industry has not once tried to meet with him in his Ottawa or Hamilton offices. “I hear more from the marine pilots than I do from the truckers,” he says.

When truckers lament that politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa don’t understand their concerns and complain that other transport groups are better heard, it seems they have no one to blame but themselves. Comuzzi, Keyes, and others on Parliament Hill contend that the owners and executives of trucking companies should be meeting with the MPs of the ridings where they have terminals and headquarters to talk about what’s happening in the industry and explain how federal policies affect their business. Many other groups do just that on a regular basis.

The reasons why truckers have such a low profile in Ottawa swirl like fish in a barrel. The industry is better off lobbying provincial governments, which are the primary regulators of the industry as well as being responsible for the road system. The industry is a hard one to nail down-lots of companies operate trucks that don’t consider themselves to be a part of the trucking industry, per se. The industry has too many small players, who are hard to organize. The industry has few-if any-companies with the financial and political might to counter the country’s dominant railroads, for example. The industry is too independent-minded, comprised of fiercely competitive entrepreneurs who aren’t willing to co-operate with their rivals no matter how great the potential gains. The industry sees government as intrusive-indeed, an impediment-and brims with disdain for it.

Take your best shot.

But events like the need for a reciprocal standard with the U.S. on driver medical qualifications, liberalization of equipment cabotage rules, restoring the tax-deductibility of drivers’ meals, or the threat of untenable regulations governing worker fall-protection ought to highlight the importance of the federal government to the trucking industry. Federal taxes, free trade, and pending amendments to the Motor Vehicle Transportation Act should be reasons enough.

Besides, almost every group with a stake in this country’s economy maintains a strong presence in Ottawa to lobby the politicians on the Hill as well as the senior officials in government departments. The railways, airlines, shipowners, and many of their unions maintain offices or representatives in Ottawa so they can have ready access to the politicians, attend meetings of Commons and Senate standing committees, and keep their ear to the ground for what might be happening. Or just to maintain some profile.

While the Canadian Trucking Alliance and its predecessor, the Canadian Trucking Association, have been based in Ottawa for ages, the industry has fallen out of touch with the politicians and officials in recent years, report MPs and others who follow transportation-related issues in the nation’s capital. “Yes, we still have a lot of work to do,” concedes CTA chief executive David Bradley, who is also president of the Ontario Trucking Association, “and no, the industry has not been well represented at the federal level.” Bradley says the CTA is climbing through the gears trying to improve. In September 1997, the organization tore itself down and poured a new foundation as a federation of the seven Canadian provincial trucking associations, with Bradley as chief executive. Any member of a provincial affiliate automatically became a member of the CTA. “We went from a group of maybe two dozen to 2000,” Bradley says. “As much as you’d like to believe that a worthwhile cause is all you need to gain attention in Ottawa, let’s face it, numbers count.”

But only if they show their strength. There’s more to successfully presenting an industry’s case to politicians and government officials than just having an office in Ottawa. As the chartered banks recently learned when the federal government rejected their merger proposals, high-priced lobbyists are no guarantee of success.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us in explaining the importance of the trucking industry to the economy,” says CTA vice-president Graham Cooper. “We’re not seen here as a $29- billion-a-year entity.”

From what he’s witnessed in Ottawa, Cooper is sure that the politicians and officials “don’t know a lot about us or the kind of diverse industry this is.”

The politicians have met Canadian National Railway president Paul Tellier and CP Rail boss Rob Ritchie, but the leading figures of the Canadian trucking industry such as TST president John Stollery or Groupe Robert president Claude Robert are “not well known in the corridors of power,” Cooper explains. “We have ground to make up, but it won’t happen overnight. We don’t have a lobbying machine like the American Trucking Associations in Washington.”

“I’ll be the first to admit, as individual business owners, as guys who move product and employ people in the numbers that we do, we’ve done a pretty poor job of making our case heard,” adds Dan Einwechter, CTA chairman and president of Cambridge, Ont.-based Challenger Motor Freight. “Sometimes it seems like the most visible sign of political action among truckers is a blockade. It kills me to see that. It’s not the way to get our message out. We’re a strong, sophisticated industry.

“Unfortunately, we really just don’t show it very well.”

Truckers need to pound the pavement more, says Jim Everson, an Ottawa political consultant. As effective as the CTA and other trucking industry groups have been, individuals inside the industry have to reinforce their actions, “You need to be there on an intensive, ongoing basis,” he says. “You have to become known by more departments as well as parliamentary secretaries and committee chairmen. And on major issues, you’ll need support from MPs and as well as the Privy Council Office, Treasury Board and Finance.”

Compounding the problem, notes Bradley, is that for truckers, government is pervasive. They conduct business on public roads, and are subject to special taxes and rules in the name of public safety and infrastructure renewal. Trucks cross borders, and on any given day are subject to the regulations of one, two, or even three federal governments, any number of provincial, state, and municipal laws, and a variety of quasi-government agencies set up to co-ordinate, enforce, or administer these rules. Third, truckers have to comply with all the regulations that govern their customers. “If there’s one organization in Canada that has the resources to cover that landscape effectively,” says Bradley, “I’d like to know what it is.”

One strength the trucking industry has, Everson observes, is its widespread base across Canada. People should not be in short supply. “They can talk about issues and tell stories in a way that is more relevant [than what a lobby group can],” Everson says. Few elected officials will turn away an opportunity to listen to not only a constituent, but one who provides jobs and other economic benefits to their riding.

“Truckers should be rapping on our doors,” says Comuzzi. “If they’re not dealing properly with government, they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage.”

In contrast, he says, “The rail guys are here all the time, air people are here all the time. So are the marine guys. The truckers don’t have a presence in Ottawa.”

As a result, he says, there are lots of legislators who still think every truck driver is overtired and his rig is unsafe.

“Truckers need to work with members in an open way-put their case to their MP, listen to what the MP is saying, and be co-operative.” The transport committee is currently looking into intelligent transport systems and ID scanners, Keyes notes. “They should be involved in this and the highway debate. But I’ve found they don’t really involve themselves in these kinds of issues, even though they affect them.”

Part of the industry’s problem stems from the nature of the owners of trucking lines, Comuzzi says. “They’re an independent group of people who don’t respect government involvement. They got where they are on their own.”

Whlie these are just the people the politicians should be meeting, “we never see them talking about trucks at transport committee meetings,” says Comuzzi.

When trucking industry leaders do come to the table, “they’re usually negative and attacking,” Keyes says. “In any conversation, if you start with a negative tone, you will get an appropriate response.”

Some truckers do take time to reach out, however.

Roy Cullen from Etobicoke North in Ontario is one MP who has met some of the executives from the trucking lines in his riding. Not long ago he visited Serge Gagnon, vice-president and general manager of XTL Transport, at his company’s facility in Etobicoke. Meetings like that say a great deal to Cullen. They give him the impression that the trucking industry is waking up to the fact that it needs to do more.

“They realize they need to do a better job,” he says. “There are lots of MPs who have trucking operations in their ridings, and the industry should be reaching out to them.”

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