Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to enter into this debate. I would like to make my points of view known with regard to Bill C-50 and possibly make some remarks on some of the issues that have been raised in this assembly.
As we know the bill has as its main purpose to amend the Canadian Wheat Board Act. It allows members of the House to look at the Canadian Wheat Board in its broader sense and make some judgments and certainly make our points of view known in this assembly with regard to those matters.
Bill C-50 is set before us with one specific purpose. It allows a voluntary deduction from the final payment cheques of wheat and barley producers for the purpose of plant breeding research programs. That should be the focus of our discussion but certainly other items could be raised in the general arena.
When we talk about a voluntary check-off we should also recognize that this is somewhat of a taxation on producers. The producers of the country should have some kind of right to determine whether they accept it or not.
We know that in bringing the legislation forward a number of industry representatives have given support to the program and that is good. The farmers involved in those organizations have been consulted and we think that is good as well.
We recognize the driving force behind the legislation has not been the government in total, even though it may take credit for it through its red book. Rather, the Western Grains Research Foundation has initiated it and through a variety of actions has made it possible that the amendment has come before us today.
That research organization is made up of 12 prairie farm organizations. It certainly has done some excellent work in the area of funding research for Canadian farmers.
A number of successful WGRF funded research projects have already been undertaken at Agriculture Canada Research Centre located in my constituency of Lethbridge. I would like to recognize those here today.
There is a communication to the hon. member for Vegreville from the chairman of the board of directors of the Western Grains Research Foundation. Mr. Roy Piper indicated that the Western Grains Research Foundation since its incorporation in 1981 had been working toward improved funding of grains related research.
"We now provide grants of about $1 million annually. An accumulative total of our grants paid and committed through 1996 is $11.5 million". He goes on to say: "Of this amount, 50 per cent has gone into projects in plant breeding in wheat, barley, canola, pulse crops and plants. Most of this money has been paid to Agriculture Canada research stations and the Universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta". I can only commend the organization for providing that support. A number of benefits have certainly occurred to us as farmers.
In my constituency one project should be of note. Research funded through the research grants is going on in the area of biological control of the Russian wheat aphid, which if allowed to continue to spread could be very devastating to our grain production in southern Alberta and other parts of Canada.
One of the other items of note is a funded project at the University of Alberta. They are applying biotechnology to reduce green seed in canola. We all recognize that having green seed in our canola certainly downgrades the canola and downgrades the net return to the Canadian farmer.
The Reform Party is supporting Bill C-50 largely because of the support expressed for it by the major stakeholders in the grain industry and because of the excellent work since 1981 of the Western Grains Research Foundation and the projects it has funded.
The central feature of the bill as has been recognized and outlined by the minister is the voluntary nature of the program. Western wheat and barley producers would voluntarily pay levies of 20 cents a tonne on wheat and 40 cents a tonne on barley. I do not think there is any necessity to go into detail but this then makes it incumbent upon the government in terms of accountability for this tax.
The request is 20 cents per tonne on wheat and 40 cents per tonne on barley. It is my hope there will not be an abnormal increase in that funding imposed by the government. If there is any kind of increase in funding it should be done with the co-operation of not only the farm organizations we have talked about today but also Canadian farmers as well, because it is a tax. It is a cost to us as farmers.
There is also the inclusion of an opt out provision. That opt out provision is expected to have a number of beneficial outcomes. It introduces a degree of market discipline that is difficult to create in a bureaucratic setting. The voluntary aspect of the program-and I hope it does not change-allows farmers who disagree with how the WGRF operates or with how it is allocating its funds to effectively withhold their contributions until the research foundation responds to their objections. This should help to ensure that the research foundation acts in a responsible and a very responsive fashion.
Another benefit provided by the voluntary nature of Bill C-50 is that it provides a degree of flexibility for the farmers depending on their needs and their interests. Hard-pressed farmers would not be forced to contribute to the program nor would farmers who have had an unexpectedly bad harvest be expected to contribute. Likewise, if farmers do not feel they will benefit from the research being conducted, they cannot be compelled to participate.
As my colleague from Vegreville explained earlier, the Reform Party will support Bill C-50 both because of the voluntary nature of the check-off and because of the support it has received from the farmer groups in the Western Grains Research Foundation. However, there are some aspects of the bill that raise concern in my mind.
A potential problem is that Bill C-50 might be looked at by government as a way to shift the cost of its research and development responsibilities to the farmers. According to the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food the $4.7 million that is expected to be generated each year by the check-off for plant breeding research is in addition to what the government already spends on agricultural research and development.
In other words this is not a reallocation of funds from within the current budget, but rather an additional research and development initiative controlled by a private sector organization that is designed to complement the existing government research efforts.
When taking this into consideration with the effects of inflation government support for agricultural research has decreased in recent years. If the government makes further cuts to agricultural research programs then the impact on the research foundation program will be seriously undermined.
Nobody is disputing that producers have a role to play in supporting agricultural research. They are the ones who benefit directly from such spending and it only makes sense that they bear some of the costs. However, Canadian farmers need government support to survive in a global marketplace that is awash in agricultural subsidies. At a time when governments of the United States, the European Community and Australia are all increasing their financial support for plant breeding programs, the Canadian government should not reduce its own support.
Any attempt to make the WGRF an alternative to publicly funded research rather than a complement to it will adversely affect the competitiveness of Canada's agricultural industry. Today in the House the minister assured us that the government will not reduce its present contribution in terms of research and development in the area of wheat and barley. I respect him for making that statement in the House. As an opposition member and a member from the farming community of Alberta I intend to hold him accountable to the commitment he has made to this assembly.
As I said earlier one of the most attractive features of the bill is the voluntary nature of the check-off. The Reform Party would like to see this philosophy extended even further. We believe Canadian exporters of grain should not be forced to operate exclusively through the Canadian Wheat Board.
Reform is encouraging the implementation of special opting out provisions for entrepreneurs interested in developing special niche export markets. If individual farmers believe they can get a better price for their produce, especially barley, than the price negotiated by the Canadian Wheat Board then we believe they should be given the freedom to do so.
Instead of allowing farmers this freedom the present government has already demonstrated it will support the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly. The best example of this is what happened when farmers this year tried to take advantage of high prices in the American market. Rather than encouraging such a growth of an entrepreneurial spirit, Revenue Canada and the Canadian Wheat Board instead worked together to impose heavy fines on all prairie grain farmers attempting to transport grain into the United States for direct sale to customers.
When we in Reform talk about opting out provisions, be it for the plant research check-off in Bill C-50 or for the broader questions of farmers opting out of the Canadian Wheat Board pooling system of export of grain, what we are really talking about is choice. Farmers must be given the choice to control their own lives. The Reform Party has serious doubts about whether the Canadian Wheat Board as it is currently organized is capable of providing the flexibility and choice demanded now by Canadian farmers.
A good place to start is to undertake a review of the Canadian Wheat Board. I am not suggesting that the Canadian Wheat Board should be disbanded. There is a lot of support for the Canadian Wheat Board, but there is a lot of support for change as to how it operates.
For many years now the Canadian Wheat Board has played a vital role in assisting individual farmers to penetrate foreign grain markets. However I am suggesting it has a virtual monopoly over all sales. This virtual monopoly is unnecessary and serves only to stifle the initiative of those farmers who wish to market on their own.
Another aspect of the Canadian Wheat Board that should be reassessed is its undemocratic nature. Because the board of directors is appointed by the government there is no democratic way for producers who support greater freedom from the Canadian Wheat Board to influence its actions. Reformers believe that steps must be taken to democratize the Canadian Wheat Board. We have already had a discussion in the House about that.
The people who are now on the Canadian Wheat Board are political appointments. Most likely most of them were appointed by the last government. I am sure it is going to be the intent of this government as soon as it is possible to take those people out of their appointed positions and appoint its political friends. But where do farmers stand in that kind of action? Farmers do not have a role in determining who represents them and one of the most important boards in this nation, the Canadian Wheat Board, has a monopoly.
The present government appointment system should be changed to a board of directors consisting of producers elected through a fair and open electoral process. The first thing this would accomplish is to increase the legitimacy of the Canadian Wheat Board. Farmers would know they have had a means of influencing wheat board policy through exercising their vote. They would also be more likely to accept wheat board decisions made by a democratically elected board.
Flowing from this democratization would be the improved responsiveness of the wheat board. Not only would election of board members encourage candidates to listen to farmers' concerns but farmers would be in a position to hold wheat board members accountable at election time.
In conclusion, let me quickly review the main points I have tried to make here today.
Reformers have decided to support Bill C-50 for two reasons. First, we believe that the voluntary check-off provides farmers with a degree of flexibility and choice in how their money is spent and invested in their future. Second, we are optimistic that this will encourage the Western Grains Research Foundation to be responsive to farmers' concerns. As well, we support Bill C-50 because it allows producer organizations, in this case the Western Grains Research Foundation, to have more say over their own destiny. Decisions on how to spend the moneys raised by the check-off will be made by the private sector stakeholders, not by the government.
Finally I have argued today that much remains to be done to improve Canadian agriculture. Specifically there is need for a reform of the Canadian Wheat Board. By advocating the democratization of its board of directors we hope to encourage the
creation of a more flexible, more responsive Canadian Wheat Board for the farmers of Canada.