OTTAWA – Debate on a contentious farm heating bill dragged on for another week in the Senate, as a vote on an important amendment was deferred until next week.
Either by poor legislative planning or bad luck, Bill C-234 — legislation that would exempt natural gas and propane used to heat barns or dry grain from carbon taxes — came before third reading in the Senate just as the Trudeau Liberals went into panic mode regarding their crown jewel carbon pricing policy, which earlier this month saw a surprise three-year carve-out on home heating oil.
That move, meant to bolster cratering party support in Atlantic Canada, puts the government’s suddenly malleable carbon pricing scheme on shaky ground, and prompted both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to shrug off any other requests to widen exemptions.
Debate on C-234 came to an abrupt halt two weeks ago after Ontario Sen. Lucie Moncion tabled an amendment on Nov. 9 that would remove mechanisms in the bill allowing for the extension of exemptions beyond the established sunset period — an amendment proposed and rejected during committee.
That was followed by a motion by Ontario Sen. Bernadette Clement to close debate, a move that prompted angry retorts from the Senate and furthered accusations that the bill was being intentionally stalled.
Back in the Red Chamber Tuesday, much of the sitting was spent dealing with senators accusing each other of intimidation and bullying in the wake of the Nov. 9 meeting.
During Tuesday’s debate, government representative Marc Gold cited climate change as a reason to give Sen. Moncion’s amendment a second look.
“C-234 seeks to widen the already broad fuel charge exemptions granted to farmers under the greenhouse gas pollution pricing act,” he said.
“There are concerns that the bill could undermine Canada’s federal carbon pricing framework, by proposing sector-specific exemptions and removing financial incentives to reduce emissions, even where greater efficiencies are achievable through current technology.”
If Senators approve Sen. Moncion’s amendment, the bill would return to the Liberal-controlled House, where Opposition members fear it would never be seen again.
The bill has already survived one amendment so far in the Senate.
Introduced during committee consideration, that amendment would have removed all but grain drying from the bill, but was rejected by Senators 42 to 28.
On Thursday, Prince Edward Island Sen. Percy Downe offered support for the unamended bill, explaining that farmers in his province are already adapting to be more energy efficient.
“The problem in Prince Edward Island for the farmers is that we have no natural gas. Any oil or propane is shipped into our province, there’s an additional cost — and those costs are very high,” he said.
“The cost of adapting to climate change is ongoing, and very expensive for the farmers.”
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Describing himself as an “independent Liberal senator” who shares the values of the party, Downe said when it comes to bill C-234, the all-party support the bill enjoyed in the House of Commons was enough for him to pass the legislation unamended.
“The Liberal party, and the Liberal government, is not a cult like North Korea where everyone talks of the ‘Dear Leader.’” he said.
“When the Liberal MPs, the elected members of the House of Commons passed this legislation, that has a big impact on me. I noticed that, I paid attention to that, and I don’t think it’s my place to tell them that their wrong, particularly when they’re elected by farmers in their ridings.”
The bill, he said, is important to the farmers in his province, and therefore important to him.
Sen. Jim Quinn likewise urged his colleagues to deal with the bill on its own merit.
“I will not be supporting the amendment simply to voice my opinion on the bill itself and deal with the direct issue, which is climate change,” he said.
“Are we going to deal with the bill as the bill, or are we going to stand in back of the amendment and not stand as people we represent from our regions.”
Sen. Moncion asked Quinn if he was satisfied with the information they’d received on the bill, expressing concerns that it was “one-sided.”
“Our job here is sober second thought, and I don’t think I’ve received all of the information to be able to look at this bill with a clear view of how I’m going to vote,” she said.
Quinn said he had no issue making informed decisions on the bill, since it was tabled in February 2022 had already gone through two committees in both the House and the Senate, as well as debate and passage in both chambers.
“I have full confidence our committee did its job,” he said.
Sen. David Wells, who sponsored C-234 in the Red Chamber, told the National Post the amendments are little more than stalling tactics by a government desperate to avoid another carve-out to their climate change policy.
“They’re trying to delay it, or amend it — which would kill it,” he said.
“That’s why they’re so hell bent on an amendment that would weaken the bill.”
Wells said this sort of thing isn’t unheard of in the Red Chamber, recalling frivolous amendments on previous bills concerning such trivial issues as punctuation, or single words.
“It was purely to keep the debate going, to kill it by process.”
He said he’s disappointed over the delays because, at it core, C-234 is a good bill — but that’s changed now that the bill’s become central to national climate policy discussions.
“This is not about the carbon tax, this is about a fairness exemption for our farmers, growers and ranchers,” he said.
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