That this House note the proactive work of the government, in co-operation with farm organizations, industry representatives, and the provinces, to enhance the agriculture and agri-food sector of the Canadian economy, contributing to the well-being of farmers, food security for consumers, sustainable agriculture, economic growth and jobs, and building the sector to be among the best in the world.
Madam Speaker, allow me to begin debate this morning by saying what a pleasure it is for me to be back in Canada and back in the House after my recent travels on behalf of Canadian agriculture and agri-food.
In mid-April I went to Morocco with my colleague, the Minister for International Trade, for the signing of the new GATT agreement and to continue our very difficult negotiations with the United States on a variety of bilateral trade issues in agriculture between our two countries.
After Morocco I was in east Asia with the Governor General and 15 Canadian farm leaders and agri-business leaders to promote trade with the countries of that particular region of the world. It was a great honour to be part of that state visit. It was a pleasure to meet personally and directly with so many of Canada's major international customers and to hear directly from them about what they are looking for from us.
Canadians have a good reputation in the Asia-Pacific region based upon our past history of friendship with the countries of that part of the world and based upon our strong reputation as a supplier of the world's highest quality products. Our delegation was warmly welcomed at every stop. I think we helped to solidify our bilateral relations in each of the countries that we visited.
Still there is no place like home and I am indeed happy to be back. I feel I should warn hon. members opposite that having dined in Asia upon worms, sea slugs and scorpions, I am ready for any challenges that might arise in the House.
Our government has been in office now for six months. We were elected on a platform that we put forward in our red book. We have spent the first half year implementing the fundamentals of that platform. We promised job creation, fiscal responsibility and a more responsive government, a government committed to integrity. We have been delivering on those commitments.
Job creation for Canada is inextricably bound up in the issues of international trade. Our top priorities have been concluding trade agreements and developing new markets. The trips I have made in the last month or so to Morocco and the Far East and our extensive round of bilateral negotiations with the United States are important parts of delivering on that job creation promise.
We have also made a number of key moves on fiscal responsibility, particularly the budget presented in February by my colleague, the Minister of Finance. While I am speaking about the Minister of Finance, I would like to thank him and thank all my caucus colleagues for pinch-hitting for me last week in the agriculture debate which was called while I was away.
As far as responsive government is concerned, we are involved in extensive consultations in all areas of government every day with Canadians from across the country, not just with businesses and organizations but with all Canadians: workers, farmers, students, people who make the country function day by day. Of course we still have a lot to do. As they say, Rome was certainly not built in a day. However I believe we have laid the foundation and we are getting on with the job in agriculture, agri-food, and a broad range of government priorities. As the Prime Minister said last week, we are offering Canadians a good government and we will try very hard to continue to do so.
In the agriculture and agri-food sector we promised to pursue financial security for farmers, food safety and security for consumers and a sound environmental policy over all.
The motion before the House today talks about making our agri-food sector one of the very best in the world. That is our goal and nothing less will do.
Last night I had the opportunity to attend in Toronto a final meeting of the Agri-Food Competitiveness Council of Canada. It is a group of individuals representing a broad cross-section of the agri-food industry in this country. They have been at work over the course of the last three years to develop the concept of competitiveness in the agri-food industry and to describe how that concept can be incorporated in the establishment and
functioning of government policy and how that concept can be used to enhance the quality of our agri-food sector in Canada.
The Agri-Food Competitiveness Council has established for itself the objective of making Canadian agriculture and agri-food number one in the world in comparison with its international counterparts. That is a goal and an objective which I share, and this government shares, an objective which is embodied in the motion before the House today.
I consider it my great good fortune to have been asked by the Prime Minister last November to preside over the very important agriculture and agri-food sector of the Canadian economy. This sector is vibrant and exciting. It is a very important part of the Canadian economy, accounting for a significant portion of our gross domestic product and a significant portion of Canadian jobs. It is also an area that I believe has huge potential for the future in terms of economic growth and job creation which were the fundamental underpinnings of our red book commitments in 1993.
However, this portfolio is no place for a faint heart. This sector is entering a period of change and reform of significant proportions. Our government has spoken often of the major reforms we anticipate in such fields as social security, which has been the subject of previous debates in this House.
The changes to be expected in agriculture and agri-food, while perhaps less talked about than some other areas, are of a similar magnitude and importance for the farm and food sectors of Canada.
Let me deal for a moment with the issue of financial security which I mentioned is part of our red book commitments.
Farmers constantly tell me that they want to earn their incomes from a decent marketplace and not from the high levels of subsidies that have prevailed in agriculture over the last number of years. They do not want handouts. They want a decent market. However, they will continue to need some reasonable degree of protection as a matter of public policy against the vagaries of the market, the weather and external disasters which are beyond their control.
Therefore, we are pursuing a two-pronged approach to financial security. As our platform promised, we are working on developing a new safety net system for agriculture in Canada based upon the income of the whole farm to replace the ad hockery of the past and the current, very expensive patchwork of programs.
This idea, the whole farm income concept, has won the support of farm organizations and the provinces. A national farm safety nets committee and federal and provincial officials are pressing forward with a number of proposals that will be presented for consideration at the next meeting of federal and provincial ministers of agriculture which will be held in Winnipeg in July.
The fundamental principles underlying our work with respect to the safety nets programs and this concept of whole farm income are as follows. First, to the largest extent possible, what we do in farm safety net programming must be GATT consistent so that we do not in future trip over trade rules that can destroy the best domestic programs.
Second, our programs must be production and market neutral so that farmers are making their own production and marketing decisions and those decisions are not driven by this or that subsidy from a government.
Third, the programs must be actuarially sound and fiscally responsible. That goes without saying, given the economic context in which all governments in this country find themselves at the present time.
Finally, our programs must be user friendly from the farmers' point of view so they are effective, affordable and easily understandable by farmers.
While we are working on the safety nets front, at the same time we are also working very hard to ensure that the agriculture and agri-food sector has access to the domestic and international markets which will ensure prosperity for the future. That is why we plunged into the GATT negotiations and in the short time available to us, between the date our new government took office, November 4, and the conclusion of the GATT negotiations in the middle of December, in that very short time span I believe we came out of the process with a deal that does meet the fundamental needs of our country.
Searching for those good international markets is also the reason why I have travelled to Mexico, South Korea, China and Hong Kong in the last few weeks promoting trade and helping to open doors to our exporters.
For the same reason the Minister for International Trade and I have sat eyeball to eyeball with our U.S. counterparts to try to settle some long standing bilateral issues in agricultural trade between Canada and the United States. That trade amounts to something in the order of $12 billion a year in total. It is big, it is important, it has been growing and it is mutually beneficial on both sides of the 49th parallel. It is obviously advantageous if we can arrive at an overarching framework agreement that will in the final analysis lay to rest the disputes that we have been working on once and for all and allow our trade opportunities between these two countries to grow and flourish in the future.
The negotiations have been difficult. The issues at stake here are not easy to resolve. In the process of the negotiations I believe that Canada has been fair and flexible. Our approach has been to try to maintain existing levels of trade between our two countries and to work toward enhanced levels of trade wherever reasonable and realistic.
This process started last November in our negotiations with the U.S. and it has been a difficult process. As a matter of principle, we have committed ourselves not to get into any kind of horse trading of one group of farmers against another, or one region against another, or one commodity against another. We believe that the various issues on the table for resolution need to be dealt with on their own merits, individually in their own right, without any tradeoffs as between commodities, regions or farm groups.
We are ever mindful of the fact that we are here in this government and at the negotiating table on behalf of Canada to serve the whole country and not just one part of it.
In the bargaining we will not roll over and play dead. We will not sign a deal that does not respect Canada's national interest. If the United States should decide at some point to act unilaterally against Canada with what we consider to be unfair or punitive measures, then Canada will fight back to defend its vital national interests.
That having been said, however, I would like to emphasize that we are not spoiling for a fight. I will keep talking at the negotiating table as long as there is something useful to talk about. As Winston Churchill once said, jaw, jaw is better than war, war. Of course he was not talking about a trade war but I think the quote applies just as well in our present circumstances.
If we can have a good agreement it would obviously be in our interest to have one. Canada is prepared to keep the negotiations going constructively until we arrive at the most reasonable result.
When the new GATT agreement is in place some time in 1995, we will have at long last an effective, rules based trade environment in the world for agriculture. To help position Canadians to take maximum advantage of our agri-food trading opportunities, our platform suggested two initiatives.
One initiative is the establishment of an agri-food industry council to advise the government on all matters related to improving Canada's market position and the promotion of economic growth and jobs.
As I mentioned a moment ago, there has been an institution in place over the last three years that has been focusing on the competitiveness issues in agriculture, namely the Agri-Food Competitiveness Council. That council will be going into the sunset, if you will, in June 1994 because it was scheduled to wind down at about that time.
However, building upon the good work of the Agri-food Competitiveness Council over the last three years and building upon the other consultative efforts that have been undertaken by the government in our first few months in office, we can see in the months ahead the foundations upon which we will build our agri-food industry council as suggested in our red book at the time of the election last year.
The other proposal we talked about in the red book was for a foreign agri-food marketing service. This service would enhance the ability not only of the government but of the private sector to identify international market opportunities. It would receive the best possible market intelligence from around the world and would position Canadian exporters to the greatest advantage possible to take advantage of those marketing opportunities. That is another proposal from the red book on which I propose to move in the months immediately ahead.
In implementing both of these initiatives, we are seeking to achieve an objective which the agri-food industry has already established for itself. That is the objective of increasing agri-food exports from Canada by 50 per cent over the course of the next five or six years.
The industry wishes to see our present level of exports, which is in the range of $13 billion annually, rise to a level in the order of $20 billion annually by the turn of the century. Our initiatives in terms of agricultural competitiveness, trade and marketing will be aimed toward helping our private sector and our farm organizations achieve that ambitious export objective.
While I was in Asia over the course of the last two or three weeks, I was discussing with our buyers and potential buyers what we need to do in Canada differently or better in order to expand our trade. There are a couple of important messages that flowed from those discussions overseas.
First of all, we must take every possible opportunity to diversify our marketing potential and our marketing opportunities. We have perhaps in this country over the last number of years been preoccupied with our trade prospects on the North American continent. The reason for that is understandable. Markets in North America are close to us. They are well understood by us. They are reasonably easy to access. The infrastructure is there. The personal and cultural links are already in place. The trade in North America is rather simple and easy for us to comprehend and exploit.
It is more complex and more difficult to seek and pursue and exploit markets that are overseas in Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, in the whole Asia-Pacific region or in Latin America. While we would never want to diminish our trading opportunities in North America, we have to be very mindful of the huge opportunities that exist elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which is the fastest growing economic zone on the face of the earth, and in Latin America, which is the second fastest growing economic zone on the face of the earth.
We have to broaden and diversify our trading horizons in order to take those vast markets elsewhere into account.
Second, we need to listen very carefully to what those markets are telling us. I think we have had a tendency in this country to say that we should simply go out there and sell whatever it is we might choose to produce. Maybe we have to turn that equation around the other way and think more of how we can produce what it is the world wants to buy. We have to listen to our customers, listen to our markets and make sure that we are producing, processing, further processing and adding value in a way that will tailor make our products and our commodities to suit the markets into which we wish to sell them.
Third, we have to put ourselves in a position to deliver into those markets in a timely way. We in this House and in the Canadian grains industry all know that in the last couple of months we have had some enormous difficulties in delivering on time. That is an issue that not only the grains industry but this government takes very seriously.
In that spirit over the course of the last number of days I know the subcommittee of the House Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food and the subcommittee of the House Standing Committee on Transport have been conducting very useful hearings. They have come forward with some ideas they wish the government to consider. They may rest assured the recommendations coming from those subcommittees will be given very careful consideration as we try to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong in terms of grain handling and transportation in this country over the course of the last number of months and producing the formula that is needed to solve those problems and to correct the situation for the future.
Furthermore, I have invited many of the major players in the Canadian grain handling and transportation system to meet with me on Monday of next week at a private meeting in Winnipeg. The doors will be closed, our jackets taken off and sleeves rolled up to focus expressly on this problem this year and to find out what we together can do to resolve the difficulty.
I am not interested in finger pointing and blame laying. That is an exercise that is a mug's game that quite frankly gets you nowhere. I want a good, thorough, candid, honest assessment of the facts. I want practical solutions to deal with the problem so we can alleviate the situation as much as possible this year and then for future years make sure that this country does not get itself into that kind of jackpot again.
It is a serious problem and I want all involved to know that the Government of Canada takes it very seriously.
Beyond the meeting next Monday in Winnipeg I also hope to engage the western grains industry in some broader discussions that go beyond the immediate problem with delivering our products through the congestion on the west coast. I want to involve the grains industry in an exercise of coming together to develop a common vision of where we want this industry to go in the years ahead.
I want to invite farm leaders and those who are involved in operating various parts of the system to think about the year 2000. What kind of a grains industry and a grain handling and transportation system do we want as we turn the century and look toward the future.
Let us begin planning and working together now to develop that system so that when we get to the turn of the century we have positioned our country in the most advantageous way to take advantage of our marketing opportunities around the world.
Our meeting on Monday in Winnipeg is partly to deal with this initial urgent situation on the west coast and partly to begin that process of looking toward the future and building toward the future in the kind of grain handling and transportation and marketing system we want to have by the year 2000.
Let me just say a word about orderly marketing. That has been a very vital topic of discussion from time to time in this House and in the standing committee on agriculture.
One of the great success stories in the Canadian agri-food sector over the last few decades has been the supply management concept that was invented by a previous Liberal government about a quarter of a century ago. Supply management has helped the agri-food sector in eastern Canada, especially Quebec, to prosper.
Knowing how important supply management is to the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, our government made a very special effort to ensure that it is protected under the new international trade regime. We will have to make some changes to supply management in the wake of the GATT just as we expect other countries will have to adjust some of their practices and systems to conform with the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The agreement that we achieved in Geneva and signed in Marrakech allows us to impose strong tariffs in place of what used to be import border controls. Those systems of tariff equivalents will ensure that our orderly marketing systems can continue to function successfully in this country for as long as we domestically want them to do so.
Quite apart from the GATT there are other changes that will be required in our supply management systems if those systems are to thrive into the future and to contribute effectively to economic growth.
We need to find a new domestic consensus on how our supply management system should operate, a consensus that removes some of the rigidities that are currently threatening to destroy the supply management system from within, never mind any international trade rule changes. Perhaps the largest challenge to our system is not international but in fact domestic and finding that domestic political will and that domestic consensus to allow our systems to function into the future.
My parliamentary secretary, the hon. member for Prince Edward-Hastings, is heading a small federal-provincial industry task force on orderly marketing that will make recommendations to federal and provincial ministers of agriculture when we meet in Winnipeg in July.
That task force has been hard at work since last January. We have already received one interim report from the task force. The work has been well received to date. Obviously more remains to be done. My provincial colleagues and I are anxious to receive the final output from the task force process so that we can position ourselves to meet the GATT requirements well in advance of the implementation dates in 1995.
I want to say a word about food safety and security. Canadians have been blessed over the years with the world's best and safest food supply. Our platform promised to maintain this standard of excellence.
Maintaining our exceptionally high food safety record and our internationally recognized animal and plant disease status is critical to consumer and foreign customer confidence in food supply. It is an essential selling point in marketing our agri-food products both at home and abroad.
My department's food production and inspection branch is working now with industry on a business plan that will ensure the health and safety of our food supply while at the same time trying to improve efficiency.
At present the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government all have a role to play in food inspection. The responsibility is further divided among agriculture and food departments, health departments and consumer and corporate affairs departments.
We are seeking a national inspection system that would streamline delivery among all of the various jurisdictions and inspection agencies. It would also provide equal treatment for imported products which under current rules sometimes escape inspection.
We will not compromise on the excellent food safety record that Canada enjoys but I believe we can reduce costs and better help our industry to compete.
The motion before the House today also deals with the environment. There is no subject more important over the long haul than the environment. When future generations write the history of this century, they will look back at our generation and judge how we have discharged our responsibilities to maintain the environment that we inherited. More than any other generation that has gone before us we have it in our power to ensure the sustainability of our environment. We can no longer claim ignorance of the consequences of our actions.
Our agri-food platform placed a high priority on conserving our soil and water resources. It stressed the importance of integrating economic and environmental goals. Now we are working with all interested parties to do just that, to develop long term approaches to sustainable agriculture that integrate our environmental goals and our economic and social goals.
Our rural areas and farming communities must be safe, healthy and vital places now and long into the future. These long term approaches will guide us as we develop a new national soil and water conservation program. This involves reviewing our programs on the economic side, for example, for their environmental impacts. It involves continuing to help our agri-food industry acquire the environmentally sound input products, technologies and practices that the sector needs to meet our goals for a sustainable industry.
In this regard I am working now on improvements to the present regime governing pesticide availability and use in Canada. Again, my parliamentary secretary is playing a large role in this endeavour to ensure that Canadian producers are not placed at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.
Alongside our concern about the environment and our desire to be competitive and to reach out into global markets goes our very great emphasis on research and development in Canadian agriculture. There are those who might believe that R and D is a kind of exotic frill that you throw aside when times get tough and hope you can pick up again when you are feeling more affluent. But science, research and development are not something you can turn on and off like a tap. It requires persistency and consistency of focus and effort and financing.
That is why in dealing with the budget for the Department of Agriculture for the current year, while we have had to absorb the same kind of restraint that applies to every government department across the board, in making our spending and priority and allocation decisions we have tried very hard to retain our emphasis on research and development, absorbing some deeper cuts elsewhere in order to preserve R and D. I think we have been able to do that in the budget for 1994-95.
In addition to that we are launching some new initiatives with the private sector, some joint ventures in research and development funding with the private sector to leverage more private dollars into agricultural science. We are thereby building the pot bigger and deeper for the funding that is necessary for research and development in this vital part of the Canadian economy. Only by being on the leading edge of international science will
we be able to retain our position on the leading edge economically of agriculture and agri-food in the world.
I want to say a brief word about rural renewal. That is a responsibility that falls to me under the mandate given to me by the Prime Minister. Shortly after the election he asked that I establish within my department a rural renewal secretariat to provide a focus within government and between governments for rural issues and rural people. That rural renewal secretariat is now up and running within my department.
Part of its job is to co-ordinate the activities of the federal government on issues that relate to rural Canada. Part of the job is to act as a liaison between federal departments, between the federal government and the provinces and between governments and a whole range of agencies and organizations in the private sector so that we can clearly identify the thrust that we want to achieve on behalf of rural Canada.
Within my department a variety of programs bear on the question of rural renewal. There is of course the system of farm debt review boards across the country. There is the farm business management program. There is the Canadian rural transition program. There is the rural opportunities initiative. There is also the Farm Credit Corporation which has, as of last year, undergone an expansion in its mandate to make it more flexible in dealing with issues that relate to financing in rural Canada.
There are also other related agencies such as the PFRA, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, which has a long history stretching back to the 1930s in western Canada in rural development and rural renewal. There is also the co-operatives secretariat within my department as a method by which government can bring a special focus on the co-operative movement and how co-operatives, especially in rural Canada, can be involved in economic development, renewal, growth and jobs in the future.
I have established for myself an agenda for the balance of this year to review all of these various programs and initiatives that already exist within government to determine whether they are achieving the objectives that were originally established for them and to try to bring to all of these programs, agencies and initiatives a clear, sharp focus on the real issues of rural renewal and adaptation in rural communities. We will be focusing especially on value added, community based, economic diversification and development as an augmentation, if you will, to mainstream agricultural programming and policy. We want to have this special focus on the opportunities and the future for rural Canada.
Last October Canadians put their trust in this new government. Of all of the options available during the election, Canadians decided we were best equipped to lead Canada at this crucial time in our history.
In one of my first addresses as Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food I told members of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool last fall that we could not be all things to all people. We would be a sincere and honest government that would work very hard to earn the public's trust and try to be down to earth, fiscally responsible, open, accessible and accountable.
I also said that as minister I want to be a pragmatic problem solver. I do not want to get hung up on dogma or philosophy. I want to put myself in a position to act in the best interest of farmers and the Canadian agri-food sector. That is still very much my approach and the government's approach.
As I have travelled across the country in the last six months I have been struck by what I sense is a new feeling of optimism and confidence among Canadians and among farmers. I believe that Canadians generally support the direction that the government has taken in its first six months in office.
I believe that if we continue to implement our agri-food platform as described in the red book at the time of the election, four years from now our agri-food sector will have taken its place, as this motion before the House today suggests, as among the best in the world.
In closing I want to thank and to pay tribute to the members of my caucus, especially the rural members, who have been so vigilant, hard working and constructive in their pursuit of good agriculture policy. They are making a very solid contribution as they represent the vital interests of their constituents. I thank them very much for that hard effort.
I also want to invite the members of the opposition to play a positive role as well. No doubt we will come at some issues from very different perspectives, but I hope the bottom line will be that we all have the best interests of Canadian agriculture at heart.
In the debate today and in all agriculture debates I hope we can set aside the partisan bickering, avoid the rhetoric and cheap shots and focus instead on the real issues. I want to assure members of the opposition that positive advice offered constructively will get a fair hearing from me no matter where in the House it comes from.
Having said that, I look forward to listening to the debate today. I hope it will make a positive contribution to the development of agriculture and agri-food policy for Canada.
Before I take my seat I would advise the House that cabinet is meeting this morning and I may have to slip away in a few minutes to participate in the cabinet meeting. I hope members will understand that does not represent on my part any disinterest in what is going to be said today in this debate. I will only be absent for a few moments and will be following the debate very closely through the balance of the day.