26 February 2008
Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
2nd Session, 39th Parliament
Volume 144, Issue 35
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Hon. Grant Mitchell moved second reading of Bill S-228, An Act to amend the Canadian Wheat Board Act (board of directors).—(Honourable Senator Mitchell)
He said: Honourable senators, Bill S-228 affects the autonomy and the democratic processes surrounding the Canadian Wheat Board. There has been a great deal of political debate among political parties in the other place and in the Senate concerning the state of the Canadian Wheat Board, what it should be doing and how decisions about its jurisdiction should be made.
The fundamental principle of Bill S-228 is that what politicians think of the Canadian Wheat Board and the political debate at that level is not really what is important. What is important is what Western Canadian grain farmers think about the Canadian Wheat Board. What is also important is that they have the democratic right and processes supporting that right to make decisions about what the Canadian Wheat Board should and should not do and what its fate and future should be.
This legislation strengthens democracy and producer control of the Canadian Wheat Board and makes it less vulnerable to the ideological whim of one government or another. The Canadian Wheat Board legislation has been structured in the past to ensure that Canadian farmers have had the say in what the Canadian Wheat Board would do. Recent events over the last two years of this government in dealing with the Canadian Wheat Board have undermined and threatened that fundamentally important principle of the Canadian Wheat Board.
I should like to list a series of events and circumstances in which the government has been involved that raises questions about how the Canadian Wheat Board is being dealt with by this government.
It has been said, certainly by my party often, that the government has a hidden agenda on many issues. On this issue, in fact, their agenda is not hidden at all; it is very clear. What is less obvious and transparent is the manner in which they have approached the implementation of that agenda.
It is very clear that this government wants to do away with the Canadian Wheat Board. They can say they would be happy with a dual marketing system, but, in fact, without the extra capital investment that would allow them to compete, it means the Canadian Wheat Board will not survive a dual marketing system structure.
The agenda is certainly not hidden, but the methods and the mechanism by which this government has tried to promote this agenda are not particularly transparent. In many ways, they are dishonest and they are certainly corrosive of the democratic process that has underlined the existence and operation of the Canadian Wheat Board until about two years ago.
I wish to list a number of events that underline my point. In July 2006, the Minister of Agriculture convened in Regina not an open and transparent meeting, but a closed door meeting by invitation only to discuss the implementation of marketing choice. What was quite offensive to many Western Canadian farmers, and to many Canadians more generally, was that the Government of Alberta was allowed to attend as a full participant — that was acceptable — but the governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia were invited only as observers. They were invited only as observers because, of course, their governments disagree with the federal government on this issue. The intent of the meeting was to profile specifically those who were opposed to the Canadian Wheat Board. Supporters of the Canadian Wheat Board were simply excluded — not particularly democratic.
In September 2006, the minister released a summary of that July meeting, which called for marketing choice for wheat and barley. There was no reference at that time to the holding of a plebiscite for farmers. In October 2006, the minister's own hand-picked task force on marketing choice issued its report in which it pointed out that a dual market option is not possible. It cannot work, as I have explained moments ago.
The Minister of Agriculture told the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry shortly after that, "I have not had a plebiscite and do not have plans for a plebiscite." The minister imposed a gag order by issuing an Order-in-Council to the Canadian Wheat Board instructing that the board, its board of directors and employees cease any advocacy function. In an effort to manipulate the election of members to the board of directors of the Canadian Wheat Board later in the fall of 2006, the minister issued instructions that disqualified 16,000 permit book holders from receiving ballots.
In November 2006, the minister issued a letter to the CEO and President of the Canadian Wheat Board indicating his intention to fire the CEO and President of the CWB. A spokesperson for the minister stated that "The government needs to be confident that its appointees will actively support its position on marketing choice." Yet, the legislation is structured so that the position that the Canadian Wheat Board will take on marketing choice will be a democratically driven position that is driven by Canadian wheat farmers and not by the ideology of some specific government.
In January 2007, the credit rating agency, Standard and Poor's, downgraded the Canadian Wheat Board's long-term credit rating. The reasons cited were the actions and statements of the federal government called into question the efficacy of the Canadian Wheat Board.
Later that January, the minister called for a plebiscite on barley, which had a dual marketing option as one of the three questions. The questions were structured in a way that emphasized and drove an outcome consistent with the government's position and diminished the possibility of support for the Canadian Wheat Board.
In March 2007, the results of the barley plebiscite were released. Only 13.8 per cent of the voters supported undermining the Canadian Wheat Board in any way, and the remaining 87 per cent of voters supported the Canadian Wheat Board in the way that it is currently structured.
In June 2007, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued regulations to remove barley from the single-desk authority of the Canadian Wheat Board, even though it is not possible to do so legally without legislation. That point was established definitively by the Federal Court of Canada in August 2007, which said that deregulating barley through regulations was beyond the legal authority of the government, and that it was necessary to have that deregulation authorized by Parliament. The government's appeal of the Federal Court's decision will be heard by the Federal Court of Appeal in February 2008.
On three occasions — December 12, 2006; February 28, 2007; and April 18, 2007 — a majority of the members of the House of Commons supported reports from the House Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food calling for a fair and honest plebiscite of western grain farmers on the future of the Canadian Wheat Board. The government has ignored the will of Parliament on each of these occasions; and that has driven the need for Bill S-228. Bill S-228 puts in place amendments that establish three important elements:
First, government will be required to consult with the Canadian Wheat Board's board of directors before making any significant policy decisions affecting the Canadian Wheat Board.
Second, the number of government appointees to the board of the Canadian Wheat Board will be reduced from the current five to three. Of those three, one will be the president, and the government will remain the appointer of the president. The remaining 10 members, duly and openly elected by the grain growers of Western Canada, will choose two of those five other board members. It is important to have some discretion in appointing board members and that is why five members were always set aside for appointment. Often, highly specialized technical knowledge is required of the appointee, and if that were not adequately reflected in the elected representatives, then the five who were appointed could compensate. That important principle will still be upheld by the appointment of five board members. However, the government's direction in appointing those members will be reduced, and the elected members will have more power with authority to appoint two of the five board members.
Third, the current legislation's provisions stating that changes to the Canadian Wheat Board's jurisdiction must be made by legislation after consultations with the board and with a legitimate question will be strengthened. It is important to note that question. The previous question put on barley was in three parts, and voters were to choose one part, although the three choices were clearly skewed. The first choice was that the Canadian Wheat Board would retain single jurisdiction, which it has currently. The second choice was that farmers would have the option to market barley directly. The third one was a variation on the second choice whereby the Canadian Wheat Board would not be allowed to have a role in the marketing of barley. Two of the three possibilities were the same possibility, thus skewing greatly the results. Even with that bias, few people opted for eliminating the Canadian Wheat Board dual marketing authority.
The new question provided for in this bill is specified so that we can debate its fairness and ensure that it is fair. The question would read as follows:
Attention eligible producers:
Please select ONE of the following options:
Option 1—OPEN MARKET OPTION:
All domestic and export sales of _________ should be removed entirely from the single desk marketing system of the Canadian Wheat Board and placed on the open market.
Option 2—SINGLE DESK OPTION:
The Canadian Wheat Board should remain the single desk seller of all__________, with the continuing exception of feed grain sold domestically.
That choice would be the Canadian Wheat Board equivalent of the Quebec Clarity Act in that it would provide and drive clarity on the Canadian Wheat Board question.
Much is at stake in Bill S-228 and at the Canadian Wheat Board. The livelihoods and lives of Canadian grain farmers are at stake. No one is saying they will not have a choice. Rather, we are saying they should have a choice to run that Canadian Wheat Board democratically through their elected representatives, and have a clear question so they can have certainty about how that question is answered.
Bill S-228 says that when a government is ideologically driven and disrespectful of institutions and democratic processes, and some might argue, abusive of the interests of farmers to make their own decisions about something that is fundamentally important to their way of life, economy and livelihood and the economy of this country, then it should be left to the farmers who live that process and who know how to make that decision. Bill S-228 strengthens democracy, democratic institutions and the ability of Western Canadian farmers to make decisions about their own futures, and takes that decision away from this ideologically driven government that, for whatever reason, seems bent on destroying the Canadian Wheat Board.