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Speech at 3RD Reading of Bill C-10, An Act To Amend the Air Canada Participation Act

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act and to provide for certain other measures.

As I have said repeatedly, my concern with this legislation is not the principle, as the principle of this legislation is something that I can support.

Air Canada is likely not benefiting from the Crown to the extent that they should still be subject to the obligations that they agreed to in 1988. For that reason, I support another step toward the complete privatization of Air Canada's right to operate as a private company.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Plett: And, hopefully, they will not be coming and asking for more money, in the next little while, from the taxpayers of Canada.

However, I am less impressed with the way the government has acted, the way Air Canada has acted and the very suspicious timeline with which this came about.

As I am sure most of my honourable colleagues are aware, Air Canada appeared at the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications yesterday.

Air Canada prides itself on being a significant investor in the Canadian economy, and there is some merit to that. The corporation employs thousands of Canadians, and until recently there was no question that the corporation upheld their maintenance location commitments as set out in the Air Canada Public Participation Act. However, at committee, I was surprised to learn that their recent announcements of investment in the purchase of 75 Bombardier jets and the opening of the centres of excellence in Quebec and in Manitoba were entirely conditional on this bill.

At committee, I asked Air Canada whether they would open these centres in order to keep in line with their commitment to the Canadian economy, regardless of the bill's passage. Senior Vice President Kevin Howlett replied:

What I can tell you is if this bill does not go forward, we will not create the centres of excellence in Manitoba and we will not create the centres of excellence in Quebec.

I also asked why there was growing concern that the Bombardier purchase would be in jeopardy if this bill did not pass, and the Air Canada representative would not give us a straight answer. I asked if Air Canada was purchasing Bombardier C Series jets because they are a great aircraft or to appease Quebec. Again, we received no answer.

As of now, they have only given a letter of intent for the Bombardier purchase and have refused to turn this into a firm order. It is apparent now that the reason for the reluctance is because the contract is contingent on this legislation passing.

Senator McCoy asked if Air Canada would commit unequivocally to opening the centres of excellence if the bill were to pass, to which they responded yes.

Senator Boisvenu asked Air Canada whether they would support an amendment in the legislation committing Air Canada to the centres of excellence upon the passage of this bill. Senator Boisvenu attempted several times to get a straight answer. The executives finally confirmed no, they would not support that amendment.

All of this is a little disconcerting, colleagues. While I support the merits of another step toward privatization, threatening Parliament with the loss of Canadian jobs is not the way to encourage public policy.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Plett: I also remain suspicious of the timeline in which this bill was introduced. First of all, I wish that the government had at least waited for the environmental assessment before making the decision that Billy Bishop airport in Toronto would not be permitted a runway extension, therefore barring the $2 billion order to Bombardier.

We could have allowed free enterprise to take its course, which would have represented a major contract for Bombardier. But instead, because the government got involved, now the government is pressuring Parliament to quickly fix it through legislation.

I also believe that Air Canada made a terrible case as to how these amended provisions would be a financial benefit to their corporation. As Senator Mercer raised in committee, Air Canada was, in essence, put on notice about the specific financial questions that would be posed to them.

We had earlier asked some union representatives at committee how much money Air Canada is saving by doing their maintenance outside of the country. They, in fairness, did not have a precise answer, nor could they be expected to.

I told the executives of Air Canada, in a separate meeting the evening before, that the same question would be coming forward when they testified. So they knew the question was going to come. When I asked them at committee, they would not give an answer.

Senator Mercer: Shame!

Senator Plett: They made reference to a competitive bidding process but provided the committee with no information.

This lack of information, combined with the fact that Air Canada never once listed aircraft maintenance as a financial concern on its submission to the Canada Transportation Act review board leaves me with little impression that these provisions will alleviate financial pressure for the corporation.

With that said, colleagues, that does not take away from Air Canada's right to operate as a private corporation.

As my honourable colleagues know, my major concern was quite explicitly the government's failure to fulfil a clear commitment to my province, Manitoba.

The Manitoba government's support of this legislation was contingent on this, as without the fulfillment of this commitment, there would be a substantial net loss to the Manitoba aerospace industry, which would have a direct impact on jobs and the economy.

After aggravating and tireless effort on my part, as well as the Manitoba Progressive Conservative government's, I acknowledge that, as Senator Harder said, the government has now, to a degree, delivered on its promise. Manitoba is cautiously optimistic that even with the passage of this legislation, there will be a net gain for the province. I will comment on that more a little later.

I thank Senator Harder, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, for doing his best for Manitobans, while the Liberal MPs from Manitoba, including the minister who personally made the commitment, had no interest in doing so.

Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk, who personally made this commitment to the Manitoba government, has not been available for media comment until yesterday when she finally spoke to the Winnipeg Free Press. When asked about the $20 million in aerospace training that she promised the Manitoba government, the minister's response was, as I said earlier, that she was "involved in some early discussions that were confidential," yet the minister refused to provide further details, now saying she was no longer on this file.

"I'm a little surprised we're talking about this in the media," she went on to say.

Colleagues, it is truly shocking that a federal cabinet minister is surprised that she has to talk to the media about her failure to honour a $20 million commitment she made to her province, the Government of Manitoba. I would add that with this government's record on broken promises, it is critical that the media hold them to account.

The silence from the Manitoba Liberal members of Parliament on this is truly astounding. Where was Jim Carr on this file, the senior Manitoba cabinet minister? Why was my member of Parliament, Dan Vandal, not standing up for Manitobans? Why did Doug Eyolfson — the member of Parliament who, after acknowledging that this bill would negatively impact the number of quality jobs in his riding — vote in favour of this legislation at report stage? They have been silent.

Again, colleagues, where was Minister Mihychuk, the Minister of Employment, when it came to standing up for Manitoba jobs? She personally negotiated the deal with Manitoba, and when the government had not delivered on its commitment, what was her response? Deafening silence.

Senator Tkachuk: Shame!

Senator Plett: It took the intervention of this Senate, colleagues, to ensure that all of the commitments were honoured before this legislation would pass.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Plett: Yes, please. My notes, colleagues, say that:

I am hopeful that the Trudeau government will deliver on the remainder of the committed funds, and I am confident that I can count on my Manitoba colleagues on both sides of this chamber to work hard to ensure that happens.

Colleagues, in the last 10 minutes, while I was listening to Senator Pratte's speech, I got an email from the Province of Manitoba that they are telling me they are that close to the other $5 million.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Plett: I expect every member in this chamber to hold that government to account. They made a promise and we expect them to keep it.

On that note, honourable senators, I want to thank all of my colleagues from Manitoba on both sides of this chamber. I want to offer my sincere gratitude to all of my colleagues on this side of the chamber for their constant and unwavering support throughout a difficult few weeks.

I want to thank you all on a personal note, and especially on behalf of the province of Manitoba, for your support.

Colleagues, I have some clear concerns with the origin and the impetus of this legislation and the lack of effort on the Trudeau government's part to honour their commitment to the affected provinces. However, I believe that it is time that Air Canada moves another step toward independence and privatization. For that reason, colleagues, I will not oppose this bill. Thank you.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

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