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Track Ralph

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Crucial Fact

Liberal MP for Wascana (Saskatchewan)

Won his last election, in 2011, with 40.80% of the vote.

Statements in the House

Questions Passed as Orders for Returns April 8th, 2014

With regard to the costs of providing security to the Prime Minister, what are the total costs for each fiscal year, from 2003-2004 to 2013-2014?

Agriculture and Agri-Food April 7th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, about grain transportation, all parties are trying to deal quickly with Bill C-30. The deadline for filing amendments was last Friday. Because of that timing, some key stakeholders had no chance to submit their views, including the Province of Saskatchewan.

We have all just received a letter from provincial minister Lyle Stewart. Will the government accept his request that emergency legislation not be sunsetted in 2016, but kept in place until the CTA review is done and permanent legislation is enacted? That is sensible. Will the government agree?

Infrastructure April 4th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, the minister should check his own budget, at page 178.

Cutting this fund by 87% makes no sense. The finance department itself says that infrastructure funding is the most cost-effective way to drive future growth. Investments now capture low interest rates and transform that value into long-term capital assets, but the vast majority of the building Canada fund is postponed. Three-quarters of it will not happen until after 2019, and municipalities cannot get answers.

I ask again, of the small amount that is available, how much is earmarked specifically for Fort McMurray?

Infrastructure April 4th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, after two months of denial, the Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs is starting to fess up.

In his last answer in the House, about the building Canada fund, he finally admitted that it has, in fact, been chopped from $1.6 billion down to just $210 million. That is an 87% reduction.

This is the major fund for big municipal projects: just $210 million for the whole country. What portion of that small amount will be available for infrastructure in places like Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo regional municipality? Precisely how much for them?

Agriculture and Agri-Food April 1st, 2014

Mr. Speaker, in Bill C-30, the government seeks to regulate contracts between farmers and grain companies, but it is not clear what kind of regulation. They should in fact table the draft regulations.

One problem is the so-called basis calculation, meaning how grain companies discount world prices to set the actual Prairie price paid to farmers. Farmers call this deduction “tookage”, and it has never been bigger than it is today.

Would Bill C-30 force transparency and put some limits on this grain company cash grab that is gobbling up about half of the farmers' price?

Infrastructure March 31st, 2014

Mr. Speaker, just hours before build Canada infrastructure funding is supposed to start, the government finally has something on its website. What does it say for the most part? “Go talk to the provinces”.

It is totally arbitrary. Certain projects are eliminated. Funding possibilities are reduced, and the overall budget is cut by $1.4 billion per year. It is 87% gone.

The Conservatives can claim that this is a silk purse, but municipalities know a sow's ear when they see one. What good is an application when there is no real funding until 2019?

Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act March 28th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, quite a number of farmers would certainly make that case.

The Canadian Wheat Board had a variety of functions in the system. Some of them were set out in legislation, such as the single-desk seller function. Some of its functions simply developed by way of the evolution of the grain system in western Canada. The Wheat Board was there, after all, for the better part of 60 years. It became, in a way, the quarterback in the system, helping to direct traffic and provide some overall coordination.

When the Conservatives made the decision to eliminate the single desk, it was their policy decision to make as government, and they took that decision. However, I do not think they contemplated the collateral damage, and some of the collateral damage was the total elimination of any coordinating function, any oversight function, and any ability to try to use limited assets in the most cost-effective businesslike fashion.

This is what is missing in the system now. It is not an issue, at the moment, of single-desk selling or not, but an issue of absolute chaos in an uncoordinated system where no one is paying attention to the synchronization.

It is a very complex system. It is a system where one has to get the right grain from the right delivery point to the right terminal onto the right boat to the right customer, all just in time. It is a very intricate, complex number of parts that all have to work together.

At the moment, no one is trying to bring any coordination to that. No one is trying to make sure we use these obviously limited assets in the most cost-effective way, so we do not have a colossal screw-up but rather a smoothly functioning system that would get the most money for farmers, because the product is delivered to the right place, at the right time when the--

Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act March 28th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, I am hopeful on the last point, that the government will at least make the gesture of making it possible for all of the witnesses to be heard. It would be pretty unseemly if some farm organizations and farm groups from western Canada were shut down or shut out simply because there was not enough time, when it is obviously possible to make time if we have the political will to do that. Anybody who would be shut out would be constituents of the government in large measure, so I do not think the government would be inclined to do that. I hope we will see that kind of generosity and flexibility from the government.

In terms of the willingness to accept amendments, I hope the experience from last year will be instructive to the government. Last year, many of these same issues were before the House and before the standing committee in consideration of Bill C-52, the legislation dealing with service level agreements. The arguments were all made. The government brought in the whips and voted down all the amendments. Now it is clear that was the wrong thing to do. At least some of those amendments would have made a difference. Some of those amendments could have prevented the problems we are now having, or at least reduced the consequences of those problems.

Based on that experience, I hope the government will be more open to hearing what the farm organizations are truly saying and respond to that testimony with concrete changes to the legislation. The government did not do a good job last year. It has an opportunity now to fix it. With that experience so recently in mind, I hope the government will learn from the mistakes made a year ago.

Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act March 28th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, I have followed the career of Minister Stewart in Saskatchewan quite closely. He is not given to hyperbole or overstatement. He is a very solid, practical, businesslike kind of guy.

He knows the agriculture industry from top to bottom. When he makes a recommendation like that, it is undoubtedly rooted in good, solid factual analysis. I am sure that his department, the Department of Agriculture in Saskatchewan, would have worked out the arithmetic to analyze his position.

Minister Stewart says quite clearly that the level the government has set for railways to move a certain volume of grain is too low. It is not a stretch. It is not a reach. It simply would require them, at the level set by the government, to move what they would have moved anyway over the course of the spring.

Minister Stewart is saying, given that there is a backlog that has been accumulating for six months—literally millions of tonnes stranded on farms—that the government should up the ante with the railways and ask them if they could not do a bit more. He has suggested an increase from 11,000 to 13,000 cars. That is about an 18% increase, which does not strike me as outlandish or unreasonable, and it is obviously backed up by the analysis of the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture.

As for the penalties, quite frankly, $100,000 a day would sound like a pretty stern penalty for most individuals. For the railways of Canada, that is walking-around money; it is not something that is likely to influence their behaviour severely.

Minister Stewart has a point that the penalties need to be higher than they are today, to be meaningful. I agree thoroughly. Those penalties should in some way go to the advantage of farmers and not just go into the coffers of the Minister of Finance.

Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act March 28th, 2014

Mr. Speaker, I am tempted to say “here we go again”. The House is once more dealing with legislation to patch up the grain handling and transportation system in western Canada. Just about a year ago, we were doing exactly the same thing.

Back then, it was called Bill C-52 and it was legislation to create service level agreements between shippers and railways. Just about everybody told the government at the time that Bill C-52, as originally presented, would not work, but the Conservatives refused to listen to any of that advice. They refused each and every amendment. They voted them down. They basically told farmers and others to get stuffed. They put on the whips and they voted against every single idea that was presented to the standing committee to try to make Bill C-52 useful. They forced it through with absolutely no change.

Sure enough, as everybody predicted at the time, it failed. Not a single service level agreement was ever completed under the useless Bill C-52.

That is one of the reasons the grain industry is now in such chaos. Grain shipments are months and months and millions of tonnes behind. Piles of crops are stranded on farms across the prairies. Some are now spoiling. Feed users and domestic processors cannot get the supplies they need. Terminals are half empty. Ships are waiting. Demurrage charges are horrendous.

Many sales have been lost outright; others have been deferred, and the prairie price is now down by 35% or 40% compared to where it was last year. Good customers like the Japanese are simply going elsewhere to buy the grain that they would normally come to Canada to get. World grain conferences are talking incessantly about the “unreliable” Canadian grain system. Some farmers have not had any income since last year. They are rolling last year's debt into next year's debt.

When all that is added together, and by the government's own calculations as specified in its March 7 order in council, the impact of this disaster is now in the range of some $8 billion in costs and losses. That is $8 billion scooped out of the prairie farm economy, most of it taken directly from the pockets of farmers.

The problem has been dragging on for very nearly six months now, and the best the government can forecast is that it will take another six long and painful months to clear the backlog that now exists.

Grain companies are going to have a banner year. The deductions that they are taking off farmers' cheques have never been higher. Railways are going to have a banner year. In fact, they have gone to New York and boasted to their shareholders that this year's grain problem is just a “modest” little thing. They tell their shareholders not to worry, because grain shippers are captive shippers anyway, and there is no other way to move the product. There are no serious financial penalties for not moving it, so eventually the railways will get paid in full.

The only ones here who are out of pocket for that $8 billion are the farmers. Crisis legislation is obviously necessary. Indeed, it is long overdue.

How did this mess arise? Everyone blames everyone else. They blame the weather and the big crop that came from the bumper harvest last year. It is always somebody else's fault. No one is responsible and no one is accountable for the failure and the damages.

However, let us think of the painfully damaging message this sends to prairie farmers. Of all of the participants in the grain system, the farmers are the ones who did their jobs very well last year. They produced maybe the best crop in history. Now the system is telling them not to dare do that again, because the rest of the system cannot handle anything more than just an average crop. Neither do we have the will to give grain any sense of priority, so the farmers are being told to just be content with mediocrity.

That is what the system is saying to farmers through the massive failure this past year.

That is simply not good enough.

The system failed farmers this past year. It failed badly. There is responsibility all around: for the railways, for the grain companies, and maybe even a bit for the cold winter. But if the system failed, then this is the question that must be asked: who designed the system? Who put it in place? Who set it up for failure? Who has imposed $8 billion in costs and losses on prairie farmers?

The unequivocal answer to that question is this: the current Government of Canada. This disastrous system, the one that has failed so badly, is the one that was designed and implemented over the past three years by the current government. That is where the buck has to stop.

So, we are faced will Bill C-30.

I think one thing in the bill that almost everyone, except the railways, would applaud is the change with respect to inter-switching. That would, possibly, simulate competition at a great many more delivery points across the Prairies. That would be a good thing. I note that some of the farm organizations are welcoming this move. They are also describing it as a modest improvement. However, it is an improvement and we all hope that it will work.

The legislation would also re-legislate the order in council from March 7, the one that ordered the railways to move a certain volume of grain in a certain timeframe. Significantly, however, the legislation would not improve upon the order of March 7. The railways would not be asked to do significantly better than they would otherwise have done anyway, with the onset of spring.

The question is, why not? That is the question being asked so eloquently by the minister of agriculture in the Province of Saskatchewan. He is a very practical, business-like, down-to-earth minister. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He would not propose a volume or a penalty system that was outlandish, outrageous, or impossible to achieve.

The Province of Saskatchewan, through the minister, has asked for about an 18% increase in the volumes to be shipped, and for penalties to be at the rate of $250,000 a day instead of $100,000 a day. He has looked it, he has examined it carefully as someone who knows the system, and he is saying, “Why not?” That would help, too, if the government could have a positive answer for Minister Stewart.

The rest of Bill C-30 would largely enable legislation to authorize the creation of future regulations. There would be no immediate action. It would simply be a matter of future hypotheticals if regulations were ultimately to be forthcoming.

We ask the question: why are there no legislative guarantees for farmers? A regulation could be changed by the stroke of a pen in the middle of the night. Right now, no one knows what those regulations might say. It would be very helpful if the government would table the draft regulations before the standing committee so it would know what those regulations would likely do when they finally come in.

For example, would there be comprehensive monitoring from one end of the system to the other to measure, analyze, and report publicly on grain marketing transportation and handling and the outcomes the system is actually generating?

Would there be complete transparency?

Would there be regulation on the basis calculations and the deductions that come off farmers' grain cheques and go into the pockets of grain companies? That basis spread, today, has never been wider in Canadian history, meaning that the grain companies are getting a lot of money and the farmers are getting less.

Would there be any sensible business-like coordination of grain handling and transportation logistics to replace the absolutely chaotic free-for-all that exists today? No one is out there directing traffic, so we have a snarled mess.

What about short lines? What about producer cars? These were the issues raised by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

What about servicing domestic customers, like the feed grain users in the Fraser Valley, and the cereal manufacturers in eastern Canada?

Would there be a full costing review to track all revenues and costs to follow the money in the grain system to see how the efficiency gains have been shared or not shared over the past 22 years when then there was the last costing review?

Would there be any new capacity or surge capacity in those service level agreements? Would there be any precise definition about what service the railways must provide? How would performance be measured, and would farmers get liquidated damages when the system fails? Penalties paid to the government do not help farmers. The damages need to be paid to the farmers who have incurred the losses.

Why has all of this been left out of Bill C-30? It has been left to be done by regulation, maybe sometime. Why were these specific amendments voted down when they were last considered by the government a year ago in the context of Bill C-52? When will farmers get to see any of those proposed draft regulations? I think it would be very wise for the government to make sure that farmers and all of us have a chance to review those regulations before the standing committee is called upon to vote on Bill C-30.

Finally, will the government accept common sense amendments to try to fix the mess in grain handling and transportation, in the interests of farmers who, I repeat, are the ones and the only ones who are picking up the tab for all of this disaster?

Concerns about the inadequacy of Bill C-30 have obviously been expressed by many members of Parliament on all three sides of the House, and concern is coming from others as well: I mentioned the Minister of Agriculture in the Province of Saskatchewan; the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities has expressed concern; the Saskatchewan Canola Growers Association; and of course, the parliamentary secretary.

As the bill goes speedily through second reading today, which I think it should, and into the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food for detailed consideration, the government needs to ensure that all of those who have these concerns, all of those who are going to be vitally affected for better or for worse by the outcome of Bill C-30, have the opportunity to be heard.

There are only about four meetings of the committee normally scheduled between now and when the House would adjourn at Easter. This matter has to be resolved before the Easter break. It would be very important for us to hear from all parties today, saying explicitly that, whatever extra hours or extra meetings of the agriculture committee may be required to make sure all the witnesses are heard, those meetings and hours will be added to the committee's agenda, so we can have a full ventilation of this subject. No one will feel they have been shut down or cut off, and we can all be assured that, when the final decisions are taken, the full information was before the committee and the decision is taken with full knowledge of what the circumstances are.

On behalf of the Liberal Party, I can say we are more than happy to have as many meetings as it takes to make sure everyone is heard. I think that is what I heard from the deputy agriculture critic for the NDP, and I hope the government would give us that assurance before the end of the afternoon, so we can all make sure that the agriculture committee does its job properly.