Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join with other members in this debate on the challenges facing Canadian agriculture and some of the alternative approaches to resolving those challenges.
In doing so I want to begin like other members by acknowledging and stressing the importance of the agricultural sector to
Canada's future. Agriculture is important because we all have to eat, because of its contributions to GNP and the balance of payments and because, as others have pointed out, it is the economic underpinnings of most of rural Canada.
However, there is another reason why agriculture is important. It is because it is a primary resource industry in full transition, a transition which if successfully accomplished, has lessons to teach every other primary resource sector.
In other words I believe there is an old agriculture based on old trading patterns, old financing methods, old marketing techniques, old relationships with governments that are passing away. There is a new agriculture that is more knowledge based, more market oriented and more internationally competitive that is struggling to be born.
This challenge of transition faces all our primary industries: forestry, mining, energy and the fisheries. However, if we can pioneer and find adjustment strategies to guide the transition of agriculture from the old to the new, I am convinced that many of these solutions will have application to other primary sectors as well.
I want to suggest therefore that the acid test of the government's agricultural policy and the acid test of the agricultural platforms of the Bloc and ourselves should be how well do these facilitate the transition of the old agriculture to the new. Do these policies and platforms provide adequate bridges whereby farmers and agri-business people can pass over from the old agriculture to the new? This is the standard by which we ought to judge both government policy and opposition alternatives.
I should add that this need for transition policy or bridge policy in agriculture has been repeatedly drawn to my attention, not just by theorists but by farmers themselves.
In the spring of 1993 prior to the federal election I received a letter from a Saskatchewan farmer in which he wrote these words:
We feel like we are on an economic island, isolated from the economic mainland and opportunities to make a decent living, isolated by trade wars at depressed prices, marketing systems we can't control, inefficient transportation systems, safety nets that don't work well and ever-increasing taxes and input costs. What we desperately need are bridges over troubled waters, bridges that lead to a better economic future.
What then are some of the key questions that will allow us to test whether government policy will truly assist farmers to participate in the agricultural economy of the future? Let me discuss three of them.
First, does the government's policy provide any prospect of tax relief for farmers or at least a reduction in the tax component of input costs?
Measured by this standard the government is not getting off on the right track. Its general budgetary policy is to spend $40 billion more this year than it takes in or $110 million more a day than it collects in tax revenues. Farmers know that these levels of expenditure mean that taxation levels are likely to rise, that the tax component of input costs will rise, and that the cost of money as measured by the interest rate is also likely to rise.
To date I have not heard from the minister or from government members. I have not heard them in the forefront of demanding deeper spending reductions that would lead to tax reductions for their agricultural constituents.
We have even heard from some Bloc members in this debate who seem to think that the answer to the problems of the agriculture industry, and presumably other industries, is still to spend yet more government money on additional or enhanced programs.
Spending more taxpayers' money is not the answer to any industry's problem. In contrast, Reformers continue to call for reduced federal expenditures.
It is our conviction that the single greatest thing that the federal government can do to stimulate agricultural recovery in the context of freer trade is to simply get the cost of government down to the point where this is reflected in lower taxation levels, a lower cost of living and a lower cost of doing business for Canadian farmers.
We even believe that the agriculture sector could be persuaded to take less by way of program expenditures if it could be assured that every other industrial sector would do the same thing to the point where there is an absolute reduction in the cost of doing business for all of us.
A second question for testing the relevance of agricultural policy is does that policy reduce or maintain the dependence of the agricultural sector on government.
During the years when government involvement in agriculture was considered to be the solution to every problem, we witnessed enormous growth in provincial programs and regulations, federal programs and regulations, and the overlap between the two. To date we see very little in government initiatives to reduce the dependence of agriculture on those programs in concrete terms.
For example I have not heard, but perhaps I missed it, the minister call for a clear definition of the responsibilities of the private agricultural sector, the provincial departments and the federal departments so as to eliminate excessive overlap and regulation.
Moreover it appears from the current budget and the estimates of the agriculture department that it intends to keep in place the dozen or so income support programs maintained or instituted
by previous governments including crop insurance, revenue insurance, net income assistance, loan guarantees, livestock feed development initiatives, assistance to agri-food producers, cash flow enhancement programs, western grain transportation subsidies, the dairy commission subsidy and so on.
Reformers on the other hand call for a phased clear-cut reduction in the dependence of the agricultural sector on both levels of government.
We believe it is the private agricultural sector which should have the right and responsibility to make the vast majority of agricultural production, transportation and marketing decisions. We believe the primary role of the provinces is in the maintenance and development of the human and physical resource base of the industry, education and training for the farmer of the future and preservation of the soil.
We believe that the primary responsibility of the federal government lies in the maintenance of health and product safety standards for agriculture, the negotiation of international trade agreements, the enforcement of import and anti-combines regulations, and the operation of national income maintenance programs as long as these are necessary.
In order to further reduce agricultural dependence on government and excessive regulations, Reformers advocate the consolidation of the current plethora of income support programs into three. These have been mentioned by my colleagues.
They include, first, an expanded crop insurance program to protect agricultural producers from natural hazards. Second is a trade distortion adjustment program to shield at least partially agricultural producers from foreign subsidy injury. A third question for testing the soundness of agricultural policy is does government policy respect and enhance the farmer's freedom of choice, the right of the farmer himself or herself to make those production, transportation and marketing decisions upon which the success or failure of the farm unit depends?
On this question of freedom of choice, we see a hesitancy on the part of the government. It is the same hesitancy evidenced by the government when it is asked to experiment with more direct methods of democratic decision making in other areas, like using referendums to establish the legitimacy of aboriginal self-government in Manitoba, to give Canadians a say on criminal justice issues like capital punishment or to democratize the Senate.
Reformers advocate greater democratization of economic decision-making in agriculture. We believe the present government appointment system for the Canadian Wheat Board should be replaced by a board of directors elected by producers through a fair and democratic process.
In order for grain producers to benefit from every available market opportunity we believe that producers should be given the opportunity to democratically examine their organizational and jurisdictional options. This would include introducing greater domestic and international market competition; permitting the wheat board to trade in grains and oilseeds; allowing the purchase of wheat and other grains on either a cash basis or a pooled initial final price basis and implementing special opting out provisions for entrepreneurs interested in developing better export markets.
The net effect of all these reforms is to increase the freedom of choice for the Canadian farmer with respect to production, transportation and marketing decisions affecting their own future.
I want to conclude by raising one further question which is on the minds of almost every farm family in Canada when they think of the future and any government policy that is intended to help them prepare for that future. That is the question whether government policies or alternatives offered by the opposition provide any genuine basis for hope for a better economic future for Canadian farmers and their children.
I personally believe that there are reasons for hope for the Canadian farmer, that bridges can be built between the faltering agricultural economy of the past and the new agricultural economy of the 21st century, over which the majority of our farm people can pass.
There will always be a growing market for food even though it may be badly distorted and obscured by everything from government trade wars to private monopolies. What we must do is figure out how to access our fair share of that changing market, which is what building the bridges of marketing, safety net and transportation system reform is all about.
The world is slowly lurching toward more liberal trade including freer trade in agricultural products. The signing of CUSTA, NAFTA and the GATT agreements are good and hopeful signs. What we need to do is hold our trading partners to the spirit and the letter of these agreements and not let them or ourselves slip back into the old world of protectionism.
We also need to build bridges which will enable our producers to survive the transition from a heavily subsidized agricultural sector to a less subsidized one, which is what our safety net reforms and particularly our trade distortion adjustment program is all about.
In addition, tax relief and a lowering of the cost of doing business must be offered as the light at the end of the tunnel, to persuade all our resource and industrial sectors to become less dependent on government. It is up to this Parliament to build the bridges from unbalanced budgets and excessive taxation to balanced budgets and lower taxation, which is what the Reform Party's federal spending reforms are all about.
It is up to this generation of Canadian voters and farmers to build these bridges, not just for ourselves but so that the next generation, the children of farmers, may enter and prosper in the new agricultural economy.
I conclude with this. In the 1920s and 1930s, in the heyday of agricultural reform in this country led by the old progressive party there was a poem on bridge building that was frequently read at farm meetings across the country and was often quoted in the House during the great agricultural debates of that year. It is a simple poem which eloquently expresses the ultimate reason for building bridges from the past to the future in any field of human endeavour, including agriculture. It provides the ultimate reason for advocating and supporting real agricultural reform regardless of our politics. I will close by reading it. It says:
An old man, going a lone highway, Came at the evening, cold and gray, To a chasm, vast and deep and wide, Through which was flowing a sullen tide. The old man crossed in the twilight dim- The sullen stream had no fears for him; But he turned, when he reached the other side, And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim near, "You are wasting strength in building here. Your journey will end with the ending day; You never again must pass this way.
You have crossed the chasm deep and wide, Why build you the bridge at the eventide?"
The builder lifted his old grey head. "Good friend, in the path I have come,"he said,
"There followeth after me today A youth whose feet must pass this way. This chasm which has been naught to me To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be. He, too, must cross in the twilight dim; Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."