‘Huge kettle of fish’ faces new transport minister Pablo Rodriguez
July 26, 2023 By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
Pablo Rodriguez has been sworn in as Canada’s new transport minister as part of a major cabinet shuffle, taking the baton on a raft of turbulent issues as the aviation sector emerges from a period of crisis.
Leaving his spot atop the Heritage Department, Rodriguez takes over from Omar Alghabra, who assumed the cabinet post in January 2021 while the pandemic pummelled the travel industry.
Alghabra steered the government through negotiations with airlines on financial aid, COVID-19 testing at airports and a new passenger rights charter.
But with the traveller complaint backlog at a record high, topping 52,000, both advocates and airlines continue to find fault with parts of the overhauled regime, even as other issues demand ministerial attention.
Rodriguez will take over on top-line items including nascent plans for a high-frequency railway between Toronto and Quebec City, ongoing supply chain hitches and infrastructure vulnerable to natural disasters amid increasingly extreme weather.
Alghabra announced his decision Tuesday not to run in the next election, saying simply in a video posted to Twitter that “it’s the right time for me.”
Rodriguez, a Montreal MP first elected in 2004 and the Liberals’ current Quebec lieutenant, took the oath of office along with 37 other cabinet members Wednesday at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
With a professional background in communications and cleantech following a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Universite de Sherbrooke, he has served in cabinet since 2019, when he became government house leader.
Rodriguez comes across as “fearless,” having shepherded a pair of controversial bills to passage this year, said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
Foundering initially, the Online Streaming Act weathered two years of tumult over the effort to force platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and TikTok to contribute to and promote Canadian content — a requirement traditional broadcasters already follow. The Online News Act, set to take effect in late December, forces Google, Meta and other digital giants to pay media outlets for content they share or repurpose on their sites and apps.
“He has navigated where an entire industry of people hate each other’s guts. So all I can say is he must like that kind of challenge, because transport is another huge kettle of fish,” Lawford said.
He holds out hope Rodriguez will address advocates’ concerns — aviation sector transparency is one — around proposed new rules. The would-be changes to the passenger rights charter stem from legislative reforms passed last month to toughen penalties on airlines, shore up the complaint process and target flight disruption loopholes that have allowed carriers to avoid compensating travellers.
“If nothing else, you know he’ll bring the juice to the file,” Lawford said.
The airline world is equally worried about its future, even as demand continues to soar out of the crater wrought by COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“We had a very challenging time ramping up. Once pandemic restrictions were lifted last summer, we faced a growing list of increasing cost pressures,” said National Airlines Council CEO Jeff Morrison, citing labour shortages and third-party charges.
Morrison, whose organization represents four carriers includinG and WestJet, had sharp words for Alghabra.
“With the previous minister, the approach was almost always to be punitive — to punish the airlines.” He pointed to passenger rights reforms, “which frankly will do nothing to actually improve the overall air travel sector.”
Morrison called on Rodriguez to work with airlines toward developing sustainable aviation fuels, reducing cost overheads, filling job gaps and spreading accountability for flight disruptions across the industry.
Other files likely to hit the minister’s desk range from northern transport to the evergreen issue of aging infrastructure as well as intercity busing — Greyhound Canada cut all bus routes across the country in 2021, shutting down the motor coach company’s operations north of the border after nearly a century of service.
“This is a very complex ministry. I don’t know whether the government has given as much attention to transport as it deserves. Maybe the pandemic has helped to focus light on its importance,” said Barry Prentice, who directs the University of Manitoba’s transport institute, citing supply chain snarls in particular.
“It really is the lifeblood of the country.”