moved that Bill C-263, an act to establish a national committee to develop policies and procedures to ensure coordination in the delivery of programs by governments in the case of agricultural losses or disasters created by weather, pests, shortages of goods or services or market conditions, and the coordination of the delivery of information, assistance, relief and compensation, and to study the compliance of such programs with World Trade Organization requirements, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to my private member's business with respect to Bill C-263.
First, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the bill is not a votable bill. It will not receive second reading. It will not go any further than this one hour of debate this evening, which is very unfortunate.
I would also like it recognized that there is an opportunity to change the rules of this parliament and this House by deeming that all private members' business which comes forward will be deemed votable and that each member, whether they be on the government side or on the opposition side, be given the opportunity to put forward their own opinions as to what should be done with respect to legislation for this country.
I will begin the debate today with an excerpt from a letter that was sent to the minister of agriculture on February 15, 1999, from the national safety nets advisory committee during the negotiations surrounding the infamous AIDA program. The excerpt states:
The majority of the National Safety Nets Advisory Committee would like to express its disagreement with Agriculture Canada and provincial governments regarding the changes they intend to make to the Farm Income Disaster Program. The committee does not support the program as it is currently designed—We are seriously concerned about the precedents which these decisions set on for the next round of the Safety Net negotiations. The program as designed now no longer provides sufficient support to farmers facing a crisis.
If only the minister of agriculture actually had listened and acted on the words of the committee perhaps he would not have faced the severe criticism he had with respect to the AIDA program.
The minister dropped the ball on the design and delivery of the AIDA program so badly that the producers and the producer groups have completely lost trust and faith in the minister and this government's commitment to agriculture.
Having said that, an advisory committee can work in the future if it includes representation from all three levels, federal, provincial and stakeholders, and is given more power in the decision making process. Bill C-263 would do exactly that.
Whether it is the ice storm of January 1998, the floods in Manitoba in 1997 and in 1999 in my area the Saguenay, the droughts in Nova Scotia, or the potential droughts in Alberta, any of those should have assistance attached to them in some form of a disaster program.
When natural disasters occur through weather, pests, or agricultural losses through falling commodity prices, the federal government must take a more proactive rather than reactive approach and start developing policies in advance which would benefit our producers in good times and bad, not the ad hoc programs that we have seen come from this government.
The purpose of my private member's bill is to help the government in doing just that. The bill would create a committee that would assist the minister of agriculture in developing policies and procedures to ensure the co-ordination between different government authorities with respect to the delivery of information assistance, relief and compensation. The committee would monitor situations on an ongoing basis and discuss what income protection measures are available to farmers in the event of disaster or unusual conditions caused by weather or pests, taking into account such areas as crop insurance, flood and drought protection programs and NISA.
The committee's mandate is expected to monitor the effects of low commodity prices on the agricultural industry and the primary producers' farm income as well. The committee would also investigate and advise the minister on the compliance of any income assistance programs with the WTO requirements.
The committee, with some teeth, would consist of 21 members. Three members would be nominated by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. One member would be nominated by the agriculture minister in each province. Five members would represent farmers and would be nominated by organizations representing farmers. Three members would represent the industry related to agriculture products and would be nominated by organizations representing those industries.
As members are aware, a national safety net advisory review committee exists right now. My bill is an extension of that committee. It would expand the role, power and membership of the committee and give the committee more teeth and more power. It would create a more permanent committee rather than simply ad hoc committees that are created at the whim of the minister.
Bill C-263 also speaks to more transparency and disclosure of information on safety net agreements. The bill specifically calls for all reports to be laid before parliament, not simply hid in the minister's office.
It is also important that we emphasize the word consistency when we talk about co-ordinating assistance programs. The committee would work toward alleviating any problems with achieving consistency in the delivery and co-ordination of assistance programs.
The biggest issue we have right now with any type of disaster program is that there is no consistency. When we talk about the ice storm in Quebec, a whole different set of rules and criteria are put forward by the ministry when it deals with those kinds of problems and disasters. When it deals with the Red River flood, programs that nobody knew about came out of the woodwork because it was an election year. Programs simply materialized. When I had the disaster in my area there were no programs but it was not an election year.
What disturbed my constituents the most was not the fact that the government forgot about them but that there was no consistency. If it had been an election year we would have had a different program as opposed to a program for a not very high profile disaster.
Southern Alberta has had absolutely no rain and is suffering from drought but that is not considered to be a high profile disaster. I suspect the programs that will come forward from the federal government in this instance will not have the same consistency as what was delivered to the Red River Valley or, for that matter, when the ice storms hit Quebec.
There must be consistency in determining the level of assistance. It should not simply be based on the amount of publicity a disaster gets. With the environmental and climatic changes that the country and the world are undergoing, it is vital now more than ever to monitor these issues on an ongoing basis and develop consistent policies that would help farmers deal with these changes both financially and socially.
We should be able to take a program off the shelf and develop it in committee. When it is developed and it describes and defines a disaster, we can make sure it also defines the programs that are associated with that disaster. We would make sure the definition matches and the program is in place. There would be no inconsistency, no ad hoc programs and no changes from disaster to disaster or from region to region.
It is important that there is a tripartite working group, as Bill C-263 suggests, to have input and share ideas on income protection for the farming community. What is needed now is federal leadership on this issue to ensure that this equity and fairness is achieved when we shape our future safety net framework.
We had a meeting today in committee that was attended by the agriculture ministers from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They reached consensus on 90% of what they had to say. They did not agree on some issues concerning the Canadian Wheat Board and on transportation but we will not go into that. However, what every one of them did agree on was that we need a long term, well thought out safety net program. I heard the same thing four years ago. The Manitoba agriculture minister said that we need a long term, well thought out program.
When I asked the question of those ministers and suggested that maybe it should be based on a GRIP model, they agreed. That is the model, by the way, that the government destroyed in 1995. The government took it away from farmers. Were it in place now, it would certainly be a different situation in the agriculture community.
They also said to a person that they would like to show the model of the ASRA program in Quebec, that they would like to start it as the model and build from that. When I suggested that there is quite a substantial amount of provincial expense associated with that program, they said to start with the model and then try to get the political will from the government to contribute to that model so that we could go forward with a safety net program that would actually work.
The bill would allow that to happen—