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).