The politics of Lac-Megantic -

The politics of Lac-Megantic

Thomas Mulcair and the debate about transporting oil we’re already having


Let us see what there is to make of the disaster in Lac-Megantic.

Over the weekend, Thomas Mulcair took the occasion of the train explosion in Lac-Megantic to fret about government cuts to transportation department budgets and the Prime Minister’s director of communications then fretted that it was “grossly inappropriate for Mr. Mulcair to put politics ahead of the people of Lac-Megantic.”

The relative safety of transporting oil by rail and how that method compares to the alternatives is a discussion that is happening: Peter TertzakianAndrew Revkin, Christopher Swan, Diana Furchtgott-RothAvrom Shtern, Postmedia, Global, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Toronto StarMontreal Gazette, Windsor StarNew York Times, Canadian Press, Associated Press and CBC have each offered their considerations of the potential context, causes and ramifications. Our own Andrew Leach considers what it will mean for the oil debate. And here is Luiza Savage on what it might mean for Keystone XL.

As to the appropriate level of musing allowed, we might defer here to Transport Minister Denis Lebel, who said last night that, “Over the past few days, there have been, very understandably, a number of questions about whether we are doing enough to keep our railways safe.”

(Or we could ask Julian Fantino about the Eaton Centre shooting in Toronto.)

That said, Colin Horgan says Mr. Mulcair’s comments lacked tact, substance and necessity and Adam Radwanski says Mr. Mulcair “veered into finger-pointing.” It could be argued that Mr. Mulcair didn’t actually blame the Harper government for the explosion—CTV’s headline says he “blames rail cost-cutting,” the quotes within don’t quite make the connection—but if he didn’t he was perhaps too cute by half; not directly blaming per se, but inviting voters to keep Lac-Megantic in mind when considering the government’s budget cuts. As Paul noted, no one knows yet why the train crashed and, in that regard, Mr. Mulcair’s reaction might prove hasty. Even if it proves somehow prescient, it was probably still hasty. When very little is known, political leaders, maybe for their own good, maybe for the sake of an informed public debate (What? Why are you laughing?), probably shouldn’t be speculating at the moment on the relevance of recent government policy. (Even if it is fine to raise questions and ideas, it should be remembered that the answer might be, “No, that’s not relevant, you shouldn’t have cast that aspersion.”)

So what about cuts to the budget of Transport Canada? Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Lebel probably both understand very well that it’s easier to cut government spending when trains aren’t exploding, but that is a measure of public perception.

Here is Transport Canada’s explanation of the planned savings in Budget 2012: “Reductions in administrative overhead such as  reductions in travel and professional services; reducing federal contribution while increasing railways’ contributions to the Grade Crossing Improvement Program.” Transport Canada is one of the departments that hasn’t filed complete information with the Parliamentary Budget Officer—click on the first link here for the PBO’s spreadsheet, under “rail safety,” the PBO shows not enough information was provided to determine whether service levels will be impacted—but what information it has provided on rail safety indicates the equivalent of three full-time employees will be cut. In his statement last night, Mr. Lebel said no inspectors have been cut. Mr. Lebel’s office told the Canadian Press this week that “rail safety oversight activities have not been cut … while increasing the number of front-line rail inspectors and auditors, Transport Canada has found administrative savings through the streamlining of information technology services and other efficiencies.” The Transportation Safety Board did file complete information with the PBO and, under rail safety, no service impacts or staff cuts are identified. The Globe noted reductions in the main estimates tabled in February, but one can debate how much the estimates matter in this regard.

Coincidentally, as Rosemary Barton notes, the auditor general’s fall report is expected to include a chapter on “Oversight of Rail Safety—Transport Canada.” So perhaps that will provide some objective clarity on the state of things (which might or might not end up being applicable to what happened in Lac-Megantic).


The politics of Lac-Megantic

  1. Everyone is aware that our trains are out of the Dark Ages….yet rather than spend a nickel, we load them up with oil and chemicals and run them right through towns and cities all across the country.

    It’s not surprising Lac-Megantic happened. What IS surprising is that it doesn’t happen more often.

  2. Oh, oh. Thomas Mulcair said something. Surely that’s
    always questionable, yes ? So questions must be asked,
    yes ?

  3. Hey, why wouldn’t Mulcair take the opportunity to blame “cost cutting” by the nearest Conservative for a tragedy? It worked for Mike Harris.

    I wonder though, how said “cuts” are reflected in the steep reduction in rail accidents since 2006.

    But go ahead Wherry…it wasn’t a Conservative crassly attempting to politicize a tragedy, so it’s fair game. Defend it. Justify it. Explain it away. Tell us what he really meant. We’ve come to expect no less of you.

    • Normally I don’t support you when you get all huffy about these things, but I have to agree.

      Sure, you can parse Mulcair’s words and say ‘he wasn’t really trying to hang this all on Harper’… but c’mon… he certainly was trying to hang this all on Harper.

      • Who else would you hang it on? ‘The buck stops here’

        • Hang what? Did you even look at the chart john g linked showing that their has actually been a reduction in rail accidents or are you not interested in the reality of the situation?

        • It’s way too soon to hang this on anybody. For Mulcair to try to hang this on Harper a day after it happened is disgustingly opportunistic. Full stop.

          • Company is keen to hang it on some poor fireman I notice….but whatever else happens at this particular scene…Harper is ultimately responsible for the transportation system. ….and it’s full of antiques they’re trying to ship oil and chemicals on.

          • If a meteor hit Toronto and wiped it out, Emily would blame Harper.

          • No, but Cons would call it an ‘act of God’

          • If he doesn’t want to be responsible for things he shouldn’t have taken the top job. Harper as usual wants it both ways.

          • Agreed. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks….and why it’s lonely at the top….but if he can’t handle it, he can always resign.

          • Are you trying to tell me that the Harper government wouldn’t do the same damn thing?

          • I am definitely not trying to tell you that.

          • So say that Mulcair did what most any politician would and acted disgustingly opportunistically. Saying Israelis are no better than Mexicans is the same as saying All men are created equal. While both are saying the very same thing, one might make you cringe while the other makes you proud.

          • Sorry, the next time a politician tries to score points off a tragedy, I’ll keep my yap shut. They all do it, so that makes it ok.

          • Or you could admit to yourself that the politician in question was doing what just about every other politician does as a matter of course and not try and make it look like that politician alone would do such a terrible thing. That or keep your yap shut. Either way works for me.

          • Agreed. The sooner we stop demanding better from our politicians, the better off we’ll be.

          • GBS, you are being far too fair, balanced and reasonable for these comment threads. Smarten up and get with the program.

        • With this logic, if you crash your car, the prime minister is where the buck stops.

          • Be serious.

          • I am. Should I be more specific and say Harper?

          • I said be serious, not silly

    • Remember this is politics!

  4. This post and its embedded links illustrates why widespread twitter and blogs (and those/”our” talking heads who would otherwise not flourish except for there) are so bad for public policy.

  5. Question: has the number of inspectors and auditors increased proportionally with the formidable increase of shipments? According to CBC rail shipments of oil have tripled between 2011 and 2012. Have they tripled the number of inspectors?

  6. Question: how much has the federal government announced in financial aid to the people of Lac-Megantic?

    As I recall the previous government was criticized as being too slow in its response to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. By December 29, three ministers held a press conference to announce some 40 millions in aid to help tsunami victims. Not that I want to play politics, but I admit that it boggles my mind that three days is too slow when helping people halfway around the world and four days is too early to announce help for our own citizens.