Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to be here this afternoon to join this debate. This is a profoundly important issue for Canadians. It has been lingering now for almost a decade under the Conservatives and has been brought to the fore as a result of the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, where so many vulnerable and innocent people either lost their lives or their families were touched. In fact, the entire community was destroyed.
As a result of that wake-up call, the government has been reacting. What we are here to debate today is frankly how it has been reacting. What we have seen is a series of dribs and drabs and slow release of technical and regulatory amendments and bills. This is part of that process.
First, it is important to step back for a second and remind Canadians what this bill is really all about, which is changing the way we establish minimum insurance levels for railway companies that are regulated by the federal government. Second, it intends to create a new compensation fund that would cover damages that arise from railway accidents involving the transportation of not all but certain kinds of dangerous goods. That is what this bill is really all about.
When the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport spoke a moment ago he mentioned that the government knows without a doubt that the amount of money that it is calling upon the industrial sector to make available in insurance and in this compensation fund is a sufficient amount of money. I would ask how he would know that. We asked the minister, the parliamentary secretary, the officials from Transport Canada, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Railway Association of Canada, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and beyond how much the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic has cost thus far. No answer is forthcoming.
The mayor of Lac-Mégantic told us that at minimum it was somewhere in the neighbourhood of $500 million. That is half a billion for an accident in a smaller town. We were also told by the ecological experts that that amount of money would have been considerably higher had there not been a layer of natural clay in the subsoil in that area that prevented the seepage of fossil fuels into the aquifers below, which would have produced almost unquantifiable damages to the natural ecosystem in the region. Therefore, when the government states that it has the truth and the answer, that it knows that $1 billion or $1.5 billion is sufficient, I would ask this. What if, heaven forbid, an accident like the one that occurred at Lac-Mégantic occurred in downtown Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Ottawa or Vancouver? I think the government would be singing a very different tune.
I raise this straight up at the beginning of my remarks to illustrate the kind of obfuscation, subterfuge and unwillingness to come clean with Canadians that we have seen from the government on rail safety over the last several years. It is no surprise. The first fact for Canadians to remember is that this is the fifth Minister of Transport in eight years. That tells us that the current government's ministers of transport have been transiting through the department, whether upward, downward or out of cabinet. That indicates that the government has been putting in a number of individuals, not taking this portfolio seriously, not until of course this horrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic happened upon all of us. That is important for us to remember.
The second fact that the government does not want made public but would rather deny, bob and weave, or create fictitious responses for, is that it is categorically and undeniable slashing funding. It is killing funding when it comes to rail safety. In fact, rail safety funding financing is down 20% over the last five years, year by year.
This year, for Canadians who follow these things, we are all being bombarded with obscene, unwarranted, unjustifiable advertising. Most recently it is the Prime Minister's own 24/7 channel, the vanity video channel he has that records him every week and broadcasts at considerable taxpayer expense. As they say in French, “c'est du jamais-vu au Canada ”. It has never been seen before. We know this year alone the government is spending $42 million on economic action plan advertising. That is a number Canadians have a hard time getting their heads around, so let us juxtapose it in a meaningful way. There is $42 million for economic action plan advertising and $34 million for rail safety. There is $42 million for advertising and $34 million for rail safety. That is the priority of the Conservative regime.
What the Conservatives are doing by subterfuge, by stealth, by miscommunicating, by misleading Canadians, frankly, is they are trying to create an impression that they are on top of this profoundly important public safety issue called rail safety. They are not.
The Conservatives have been consistently and repeatedly warned, first by the Auditor General several years ago who came out and said in practical terms, that we agree with the notion of a safety management system, unlike the NDP, but as Ronald Reagan might have said, trust but verify.
It is the verification where the government as the regulator of a regulated sector is falling short, mostly falling short. The Conservatives cannot stand up and look constituents in the eyes and say that they have enough inspectors, because they do not. They cannot stand up and say that they have enough qualified inspectors, because they do not. They cannot stand up and tell us that they are properly trained and not coming primarily from the private sector that is regulated, because that is not true either. That is in fact where they are coming from.
There is a capacity problem inside Transport Canada. A department that is filled with good people, passionate, dedicated public servants, is being cash starved by a government spending $42 million on economic action plan advertising. As a result, it is our view that the government is putting Canadians at risk. Do not take our word for it; take the word of the Auditor General.
VIA Rail in a three-year or four-year audit period was not audited once by Transport Canada. VIA Rail carries over four million passengers a year, and it was not audited once. The systems safety audit that ought to have been accomplished was not done once. In fact, the government's own numbers indicate it is only completing 25% of the audits they themselves say are necessary to keep rails safe.
It is absurd to hear senior members of the government claim that things are getting better and that they have made so much progress in these dribs and drabs releases. It is not true.
We have a problem; we have a cultural problem in the government. I hate to go back to this, but it is important because past behaviour often indicates a propensity for future behaviour.
There are at least five remaining front-line ministers in the government who were in Ontario when the Walkerton water crisis hit the province. When that crisis hit the province, they all stood up in Ontario and used the same language we heard here today. “We can adjust based on the estimates with supplementary estimates.” “It is the officials who tell us that is enough money to conduct rail safely in the country.” These are the same buzzwords and the same sloganeering that we heard right after the Walkerton crisis, where people died and lots of people got sick.
In fact, in the report by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, five or six of these front-line ministers were singled out as contributing to the Walkerton crisis. Why? They slashed the funding. There was not a sufficient number of water inspectors, just as there is not a sufficient number of qualified rail inspectors today. This is the same story.
One would think that the government would have learned from the terrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, but it has not. That is the context within which this bill has been brought to the House for third reading.
When the minister came to committee, I asked her not once, not twice, and I did this on purpose, I asked her ten consecutive times why she had cut the budget by 11% for Transport Canada, for a total of $202 million cut from the budget. She denied it. I asked her again and again. Finally, she turned to her officials and said that they gave her the numbers, that it was their responsibility, and they said that is all the money they need. Nobody believes this. That is not how governments work. Budgets are allocated. The Treasury Board sits down with finance. The PMO overrules, agrees or disagrees, and the money is allocated.
We have a situation where these choices have been made at the highest levels of government. I asked her ten times, and ten times she denied it.
It is funny because the Parliamentary Budget Officer says that those are the numbers. The Library of Parliament's research says that those are numbers. We are hard-pressed to understand why the government will not come clean. Why will the government not just simply say that it is making a choice, that it is cutting the funding for Transport Canada and cutting rail safety by 20%?
When it comes to the testimony of the experts that we rely on in this place and who bring a perspective that is invaluable to improving legislation, not necessarily perfecting it, but certainly improving it, the Conservative majority on the committee brought the hammer down and said that there shall be no more than two meetings of two hours each. It is serious. We are talking about billions and billions of dollars of insurance coverage. My prediction is we are talking about billions of dollars in litigation that will follow this bill, because it was not thought through legally. The government said that there shall be two two-hour meetings.
When I pushed the four top witnesses on this very issue, they all admitted that, in fact, they had not been properly consulted at all. They had never had a chance to dialogue properly with the department. They had serious, profound questions about the insurance implications, the distributive effects, employment implications, trade competitiveness implications, and beyond. That is what has happened here.
As I said earlier, in my view, there is no greater responsibility of a government than to keep its citizens safe. Canadians today are rightly concerned about rail safety. They are very worried about rail safety, and it is not just the terrible Lac-Mégantic tragedy. We have had three major derailments in the province of Ontario in the last three months. There have been many more in the United States.
The Transportation Safety Board warned the government about the DOT-111 cars. The Transportation Safety Board looked at the northern Ontario accident and confirmed that the new standard brought by the government was not satisfactory. The government came out and said that it has a three-year phase-out and retrofit schedule for DOT-111s, which it knew was false, but it had to put something in the window, instead of slowing down, taking a bit of time and coming up with a better projection and a better plan for the phase-out of the cars that are dangerous.
That is just not the way it operates. The Conservatives had to say something to Canadians. They were really frightened of this file, so as a result they had to make an announcement, even though they know and were told by the number one company in the country that retrofits to these cars are technically impossible to do. The minister was told by her own advisory committee that it is technically impossible to do. The Conservatives announced it.
People are concerned. Recently, many of my caucus colleagues held a very public, large town hall in Toronto on rail safety. They have since written to the minister herself. They said that they are “worried about the massive increase in shipments of crude oil by train, up from 500 tank cars in 2009 to an estimated 110,000 tank cars in 2014”. We are reminded that the minister's spending on rail safety, as I said, is down 20% since 2009-10. She cannot deny it. The numbers are there. “Northern Ontario”, they go on to say, “saw three derailments in less than a month between February and March”. They raised concerns about the accuracy of the current speed limits on trains routed through Toronto and for that matter, all urban centres in the country, whether trains with dangerous materials should be routed through highly populated neighbourhoods at all. Is that a discussion we are having here? Never.
Band-aid after band-aid after band-aid, image after image after image, rolled out of technical dribs and drabs has been the response to the wake-up call of Lac-Mégantic. It does not cut it. It is not good enough.
We have tried to work collaboratively with the government. I think there are many MPs on the government side themselves who are dissatisfied with this response, because they are feeling the heat from their own constituents, as they should, as we all should, because we have an obligation to get this better for Canadians.
It is hard for us to square a number of other technical parts of the bill which I want to turn to. One is that the parliamentary secretary got up and said, in fact quoting the minister, that they have been assured that there are no financial implications for the bill, no additional costs in bringing in a 59-page bill. Really?
I asked the director general of the Canadian Transportation Agency whether that was true, and she could not answer, because now one of the things the bill does is it actually takes away litigation and gives a new responsibility to the Canadian Transportation Agency to adjudicate, to decide on how much compensation should be paid if there is an accident if a claim is made by a municipality or province. They admitted in testimony that they are not qualified to do it. The director general of the Canadian Transportation Agency said that they will think it through later. They have to get it done. There is an election coming October 19. They have to get it done.
There is one technical gap. Another is related to a really important legal liability issue where the test as to who is responsible if there is a railway accident has been changed by one stroke of a pen. I want to finish with this, because I predict this is going to cause all kinds of problems. Now a railway company that operates a railway which is involved in a railway accident, simply involved, the problem with that is railways often pass goods on from one railway to another, so who is involved? Who will pay the compensation? Whose insurance company will indemnify for the cost? This is completely unclear.
The Conservatives were warned. They had legal opinions that told them this was a real problem going forward. They were told it would lead to difficulty getting insurance coverage and difficulty later on with litigation, but they ignored it. It was brought to them in committee by me, by others, by their technical experts.
It is unfortunate that we missed the opportunity to take the time we need to improve things for Canadians when it comes to rail safety, because we need our railways. They are a big part of the engine of the economy. I think right now we have an obligation to go back and build on this bill and get it better.