House of Commons Hansard #94 of the 35th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was research.

Topics

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

October 31st, 1996 / 10:20 a.m.

Reform

Jay Hill Prince George—Peace River, BC

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak to Bill C-34 and to have the opportunity to briefly discuss the state of this country's agricultural sector.

First let me address the matter of Bill C-34. Its basic objectives are fairly admirable. It is supposed to streamline, to clarify, to modernize, to incorporate. These modern day management terminologies are rather appealing as debt and taxes rise and services degenerate.

This bill seeks to combine four separate acts and an agricultural program into one more concise piece of legislation. I am very much in favour of reducing administration costs and bureaucratic entanglements. The reduction of bureaucracy at any level is something that the Reform Party has been strongly advocating ever since the party's inception.

I am also in favour of making this Parliament more democratic. Bill C-34 exemplifies how the Liberals, despite red book promises to allow all MPs a greater role in drafting legislation, are continuing to ram through legislation without proper consultation from Canadians and their elected representatives in this House.

Each and every amendment to Bill C-34 proposed by the Reform Party was turned down by the Liberal dominated agriculture committee. It is my hope that we will have better luck with these amendments now that they are in the House, but I will not hold my breath.

The point I want to make today is that I do not believe the farmers who might be watching the debate are really all that concerned about Bill C-34. The farmers in my riding of Prince George-Peace River are struggling to bring in their crops. It is winter up there now. I was home last weekend and saw that things are disastrous, to say the least.

I spoke with the crop insurance people in Fort St. John which is my hometown. They were telling me that in the B.C. Peace region probably around 25 per cent of the crops on average have been harvested. That would vary in some areas.

Last weekend I travelled to the small farming community of Buick Creek which is north of Fort St. John. The farmers up there were telling me that they have hardly turned a wheel. The land is just a quagmire and they are lucky if they can get a load or two. Obviously, less than 10 per cent has been harvested in that area. Things do not look good.

As well, when I was speaking with the department of agriculture representatives, specifically Bill Greenhalgh of the provincial crop insurance branch, he informed me that only about 21 per cent of this year's crop is covered by crop insurance. That is about 80,000 acres out of roughly 384,000 acres.

I urge the federal minister of agriculture to join with his counterpart in British Columbia and tour the B.C. Peace region. He should see the state that the crop is in himself. I cannot emphasize this too strongly. He should go there to meet with farm groups and talk to the individuals involved.

In consultation with my colleague from the Alberta riding of Peace River I know that things are bad there as well. When it comes to weather, the border between the provinces does not make a difference. Although they are a little more advanced in the amount of crop they have harvested in the Grand Prairie and Peace River regions, there are pockets throughout the Peace River region which have virtually harvested no crop. It will indeed be a very sad Christmas for a lot of farm families in the Peace River country this year.

The farmers were hopeful because of the improvement in grain prices over the last few years and the amount of rainfall they had

this summer. It looked like it was going to be a good crop. However, when the rains continued into the harvest season, the fields turned into quagmires. The farmers could not get their equipment on the land in some areas. Harvest conditions were non-existent. They would be lucky to have one day out of 10 when they could go out in the fields with their combines.

Farmers have paid a horrific price to try to get the little bit of crop off that they have. It will be years before they will see the true cost in damage to equipment and land. I want to re-emphasize that government representatives should be travelling to the Peace River country to see firsthand what the situation is.

The second issue I want to raise on behalf of the farmers of our area is that I wrote to the former Minister of Transport almost a year ago raising the issue of rail shipping costs. There are two port destinations to which Peace region farmers can ship their product by rail, either Vancouver or Prince Rupert.

The port of Prince Rupert is severely underutilized, even though it has facilities superior to the port of Vancouver in many respects. It is ice free 12 months of the year and has a better berthing capacity. That means a ship can be completely loaded at the terminal, whereas in Vancouver because of water depth, a ship can only be partially loaded at one terminal and then it must be moved to another to be topped up. More important, Prince Rupert is a day and a half shorter to grain export markets on the Pacific rim.

Finally, I received a reply last spring from the present Minister of Transport concerning the difference in the cost of rail transport between the port of Prince Rupert and the port of Vancouver. In that letter he stated that the problem of rail rates is a commercial matter between the affected parties, namely the shippers and the two railways and that it is government policy not to intervene in such business decisions.

A month later, following continued protest, the transport minister finally acknowledged the gravity of the situation and initiated the northwest transportation corridor task force. Ironically, this task force was not going to hold any hearings in the Peace River country until the mayor of Dawson Creek and I made our concerns known. Two meetings have now been scheduled for early next month in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek so the farmers in the area can make their concerns known to the northwest transportation corridor task force.

It really comes down to the issue of the difference between the rail rates. I am told that even with some recent changes, it still costs $3.81 more per tonne to ship grain to Prince Rupert than to Vancouver even though the distances are virtually the same. It used to cost $8.08 more because of the switching charges B.C. Rail is charged in Prince George to go on to CN track. I hope that issue will be properly addressed.

In the time I have left, I would like to briefly touch on one other issue, the shortage of rail cars in the Peace River country. Despite the fact that we do not have much crop off, ironically we cannot get enough rail cars to ship the crop that is there. My office spoke with Mr. Mike Burton, an elevator agent in Fort St. John for Cargill, who said that he had orders for 70 cars and could only get 17 the other day.

I would suggest that Peace River farmers have been well accustomed, to use an old farm saying, to sucking the hind teat, when it comes to agricultural services and attention by the government. We really do not believe it is the right way to go and we would like to see the government pay more attention to the Peace River country and our farming needs.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Bloc

Jean-Guy Chrétien Frontenac, QC

Madam Speaker, before speaking on the motion put forward by my hon. colleague from Kindersley-Lloydminster, I would like to comment on the confusion that seemed to exist among the hon. member's colleagues in the Reform Party reflecting in essence his party's view of the thrust to be given the many legislative changes on agriculture.

It is disappointing to see the reluctance of the Reform Party and especially the ideological barriers colouring its rather limited contribution to the ongoing debate in the Quebec and Canadian agricultural sector.

Now, moving to serious matters, to Bill C-34. While the motion before us today was amended a number of times in the past few days, it still contains elements that run counter to the concern the government must have for farm producers.

We are aware of the fact that Bill C-34 involves developing programs for the marketing of agricultural products, which means having products to market, which provide a profit for producers, at a fair price to consumers. This means, for the producers, having more effective tools to recover the costs associated with operating a farm.

The amendment put forward by my hon. colleague from the third party removes two of the elements that form the very basis for this bill. It would eliminate the government's role as regulator of the agricultural market as set in clause 31 of the bill and ensure impunity in the case of refusal to provide information leading to a better analysis process in order to properly define the principles underlying clause 31.

I get the impression that, through Bill C-34, my hon. colleague is trying set a kind of precedent in order to apply the principle in the debate on restructuring the Canadian Wheat Board. I must tell my

hon. colleague from the Reform Party, however, that any such legislative change can in no way apply to the Canadian Wheat Board because of its status and prerogatives. In this context, what the hon. member is asking in his motion is to limit the important contribution of the government in stabilizing costs in the agri-food sector.

Concretely, this enables the government to maintain the price of a given product at a certain level in the event of crop failure or, conversely, when harvest is too good and plentiful.

To illustrate the problem, we could take the example of the 1988 maple syrup production. You may recall that, in 1988, record amounts of maple syrup were produced. Consequently, maple syrup producers found themselves with barrels of grade A1 and even AA syrup that they could not sell even for less than a basic price, to at least cover their operation costs. In the case of maple syrup, the government had decided to support prices by buying up maple syrup surpluses from producers, and thus avoid a price drop. Stocks were stored, to be put on the market later, at a time of relative shortage, or in a year when production would be much more limited. This is why the price of maple syrup fluctuates very little from year to year. The Reform member seems not to know this basic economic rule.

Based on the same approach, the second motion of the Reform member seeks to ensure impunity for an action preventing the government from obtaining information that might be necessary to fulfil its role of price stabilizer. Obviously, and you will agree with me, this way of thinking is totally unacceptable, since it defeats government efforts to make things better for farmers.

The member's logic is even more flawed when you consider the high level of confidentiality governing this type of government intervention. From an administrative point of view, no one has any business knowing someone's personal situation, since the substance of this bill is to take action for the good of farm operators, based on a global and collective vision.

Before concluding, I remind the House that Bloc Quebecois members were and continue to be in agreement with the general principle of Bill C-34. However, we strongly oppose the amendment proposed by the hon. member for Kindersley-Lloydminster. We care too much about farmers, given their role, to risk a lowering of their industry's standards of operation.

In conclusion, I ask Reformers to reconsider their opinion and their position, for the good of consumers and farm producers.

Should there be a very bad crop, prices could increase unduly and eliminate a number of farmers. In three, four or five years, there could be a shortage of farmers, or else prices could remain unusually high.

For the good of the general public and of farmers, consumers and processors, it is important to support the substance of Bill C-34 and to oppose the two amendments proposed by the Reform member.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

10:40 a.m.

Bloc

Jean Landry Lotbinière, QC

Madam Speaker, you have played a little trick on me, because you told me there would be a Reform Party member going ahead of me. I therefore had 10 minutes to prepare, but no matter, I will give my speech anyway.

As you know, the riding of Lotbinière, which I have the great honour to represent, is one of the largest agricultural ridings in Quebec. It is therefore with great interest and a sense of duty, Madam Speaker and dear colleagues, that I rise today to speak to Bill C-34, the Agricultural Marketing Programs Act.

First of all, I am pleased to note that the bill tabled is intended to combine four acts into a single act that provides support for the marketing of agricultural products.

This bill affects the Advance Payments for Crops Act, the Prairie Grain Advance Payments Act, the Agricultural Products Cooperative Marketing Act and the Agricultural Products Board Act. It also takes in the Cash Flow Enhancement Program.

My party, the Bloc Quebecois, is generally in favour of the objectives of Bill C-34, because it is essentially consistent with what the industry is calling for and seems more in line with our values and agricultural development models in the province of Quebec.

Nonetheless, I would point out an important budgeting inconsistency. If clauses 25 and 30 are financial in nature, the government hopes to be able to pay farmers under the advance payments program and the price pooling program.

We have learned that $40 million a year for three years have been set aside under the advance payments program. In other words, there should be $120 million after three years. Where it all goes badly wrong is when Agriculture and Agri-Food starts to take money for marketing programs out of the envelope reserved for the income protection program.

This transfer, this misappropriation frankly, of envelope funds means an equivalent reduction in the money available for protecting the incomes of farmers. By acting in this manner, the federal government is unfortunately once again cutting into Quebec's share.

Like it or not, Quebec's share of income protection programs for farmers is already, yes already, lower than what it is entitled to, given the relative weight of agriculture for Quebec.

There is a distinct feeling that once again, Quebec gets the short end of the stick. It is the same old story: Quebec does not get its fair share, on a per capita basis.

You will remember what my colleague, the hon. member for Laurier-Sainte-Marie, said in the House last week when he named various sectors in which Quebec did not receive its fair share.

Remember the case of raw milk cheese, where more than 50 per cent of the producers were from Quebec. A ban on this product can have a very serious impact on Quebec producers. My point is that when the government introduces measures, as in the case of raw milk cheese, it often does so at the expense of Quebecers.

To get back to the bill on agricultural marketing, we should insist that the budget for advance payments programs not be taken out of the budget for income protection programs. I think that is a major irritant for farmers in Quebec.

When that happens, the farms in my riding and throughout Quebec will at least be treated fairly under this program.

The budget envelope for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada income protection programs in 1997-98 is $600 million. This represents a drop of $250 million or 30 per cent from the prebudget level of $850 million. If the federal government goes ahead and siphons off funds from the budget for income protection programs, $120 million will have been taken out of this envelope over a period of three years.

To be perfectly frank, it is unconscionable to use part of the budget for protection of farm incomes to finance the advance payments program which, I may remind the House, is a program for the marketing of agricultural products. What connection is there between the advance payments program and income protection programs? None at all.

When the Minister of Finance tables his budget, does he do so fully intending to deceive taxpayers in Canada and Quebec? Should the budget not do what it is supposed to do? That would make sense. However, if we follow the logic of this government, should we infer that the existing figures do not mean a thing since they no longer correspond to the envelope they were supposed to cover? I am sorry but this is outrageous.

The budget for the income protection program is already inadequate, so there is certainly no reason to take money out of this budget, unless the government wants to penalize Quebec farmers. If the federal government, through the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food, takes money set aside for income protection programs to finance the advance payments program, which is a program for marketing agricultural products, why did it not make those changes right now?

First of all, it would take real political will to change the situation and ensure that the money used for advance payments comes directly out of the funds set aside for the agricultural products marketing programs. I think the government should invest more money in the budget for marketing programs and stop cutting and siphoning off funds from one budget envelope to another. The solution is simple, but it is also vitally important.

As a result, in the future, the incomes of farmers in Lotbinière and throughout Quebec would be better protected. They could also take $120 million from the budget allocated to income protection plans, but we would not be any better off than today in that there would be less money for Quebec farmers in this area and distribution would be even more inequitable for the other nine provinces in the Canadian federation.

Another possibility mentioned by some would be for the government to inject new money into programs aimed at marketing agricultural products and transfer money from the budget earmarked for income protection programs.

In my opinion, this is a partly acceptable solution. That is why my party, the Bloc Quebecois, is asking the federal government to make the changes required to correct the situation and ensure that Quebec farmers are treated fairly.

In clear, simple terms, we are asking the government to take the money for the advance payments from the budget set aside for income protection programs. This is a major irritant for agricultural producers in Quebec, including, of course, those in my riding of Lotbinière.

The government tells us this bill will have no impact on Quebec producers receiving advance payments, except that it would be much harsher on those who do not repay their advance payments. We can only conclude that this bill will have a much bigger impact on Quebec producers.

Furthermore, with its new eligibility rules, Bill C-34 would exclude any kind of co-operative marketing. In fact, one of the eligibility requirements for producers must be rejected, especially the one about their being able to decide when to sell their crops. This requirement would exclude crops marketed co-operatively. One of those most affected would be the VEGCO Group of Quebec.

In closing, I agree that the federal government should use taxpayers' money efficiently by rationalizing its programs so that farmers receive the same benefits and meet the same obligations. But there is a major inconsistency in the way the budget is allocated and, if the government were left to itself, it would reduce Quebec's share of income protection programs even further.

I feel I have a duty to defend the interests of the farmers in my riding of Lotbinière and those of Quebecers.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

10:50 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup, QC

Madam Speaker, I find it interesting to have the opportunity to speak on

the act to establish programs for the marketing of agricultural products. First of all, I think it is important, especially in light of the amendments proposed by the Reform Party, to realize that the basic principle that matters here is that agriculture is a unique and very different industry, and that it has to be dealt with as such.

A well targeted approach must be used so as to not do this industry a disservice in trying to put it on the same playing field as other industries. Agriculture, as you know, is dependent on the weather, markets, all kinds of factors that are intangible and difficult to predict.

The Reform motion seeks to delete the clause enabling the minister to buy, sell or import agricultural products so that prices will be more stable, thereby improving marketing conditions. My reaction, after meeting with farm producers in my riding over the summer, is that the Reform Party is displaying a rather blatant ignorance of several industrial sectors. There are many areas of the agricultural industry where such measures are required.

There are indeed many areas, be it maple syrup, potato or milk production, where the government must have a handle to regulate the market. Otherwise, the situation will revert to what it was 15 or 20 years ago. One year, producers make good money, but the next year their profits drop and the operation has to close down. This is not good for anyone involved, neither for the family business nor for the economy at large.

It is imperative that this amendment be defeated so that the minister may continue to exercise a regulating role, ensuring some stability for our economy and our agricultural industry. Just compare the typical farm producer, in Quebec and Canada to their counterpart in the U.S., where they practice this kind of extreme competition without any government involvement, and you will see that the economic situation of American producers is definitely not as good.

American farmers are much more dependent on economic cycles. By comparison, in Quebec and in Canada, we have managed to develop an agriculture which, although it is not easy and requires a lot of effort and sacrifices on the part of farmers, allows them, through stabilization policies, to carry on their operations. Quebec was a pioneer in this regard. It has been periodically and systematically involved, to provide good conditions to its farmers and make sure that succeeding generations would take over farming operations.

Amendments such as the one proposed today by the Reform Party would also have the effect, in the medium term, of creating a great deal of uncertainty about agriculture. This is an industry in which a bad year, or a surplus that cannot be disposed of, creates a serious problem. People simply cannot invest their life in such an industry.

The Reform Party should go back into the field. It may not represent the same type of farmers as we have in Quebec, but its amendment is certainly not very appealing.

The other aspect is one that does not necessarily concern our farmers, but is nevertheless important from a moral point of view. An amendment such as the one proposed by the Reform Party would impede international assistance, in that the Canadian government would no longer have the means to take action in emergency situations around the world, when it is necessary to ensure that populations have food in situations of crisis.

We have to maintain the image developed over the years by our country. It is generally agreed that Canada does a lot at the international level. There are many flaws to work on, but the general principle must be maintained. Unfortunately, the amendment proposed by the Reform Party would not allow us to meet that objective.

I also want to stress the fact that we must give particular attention to small producers. This summer, I met with producers, including some from the maple syrup industry. Maple syrup production is an industry with big and well-organized chains that offer interesting product lines. However, we should promote home-made products that could be exported.

Obviously, maple syrup is one such product, but if we wanted to set up a guaranteed vintage program, for example, like the ones for wine and other products, if we wanted to single out our product and obtain a higher price because of the quality or special characteristics of maple syrup from a particular area, for instance, we still have quite a long way to go.

Governments are very sensitive to lobbying from groups of well organized stakeholders, but the people who can help small rural companies to grow must still make a major effort. They must be given access to foreign markets, and I hope that a bill such as the one we are about to pass will be a help and not a hindrance.

In summary, the government must be able to maintain its role of protecting the income of farmers. The government must not be prevented from buying up surpluses, from taking the necessary time. In this connection, we have a very interesting example. A few years back, there was a surplus of apples. The federal government bought up a large quantity of them and was then able to resell them to a company that makes juice. In this case, the producer got his price, the government was able to cover its expenses and, in addition, the juice was produced in Quebec, in Canada.

This allowance for a regulatory role meant that jobs were maintained, production kept up and the link between the person doing the processing, producing the apple juice, and his market was

also maintained. The market is therefore not disrupted, resulting in greater stability for the agricultural economy.

This is perhaps what agriculture needs the most. Yes, we have good producers, yes, we must adjust in terms of research and development. The government has done some things that we did not like. We must not, however, lose sight of the important fact that if we compare agriculture in our country to that in other countries, there are certain advantages that we want to keep. We will not improve the situation by creating uncertainty for producers.

This is why the Bloc Quebecois will be voting against the Reform Party's amendment.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Ringuette-Maltais)

Is the House ready for the question?

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Ringuette-Maltais)

The question is on Motion No. 2.

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Some hon. members

No.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Ringuette-Maltais)

All those in favour will please say yea.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Ringuette-Maltais)

All those opposed will please say nay.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Ringuette-Maltais)

In my opinion the nays have it.

And more than five members having risen:

Agricultural Marketing Programs Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Ringuette-Maltais)

Call in the members.

And the bells having rung: