Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate at this third reading stage debate on Bill C-4, the amendments to the Canadian Wheat Board.
Following the initial debate last September, this bill was sent off to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. As a then new member of this Chamber, I was optimistic that we would be able to, in a collegial committee atmosphere, make improvements to the bill. That obviously turned out not to be the case.
I found the committee experience to be a hollow exercise, by and large. The Liberals on the committee were not really interested in any give and take and the committee's deliberations were unduly rushed. As I said last week on second reading, the proof of that particular pudding was that even before the Canadian Wheat Board official could come before the standing committee, the opposition parties were informed by the standing committee that we had to have our amendments in for final deliberation.
There clearly was a rush to judgment on this. Now we have time allocation to contend with as well, when everyone knows that there will not be a vote on the new board until after this fall's harvest.
New Democrats have always supported the Canadian Wheat Board because we believe that it has worked in the best interests of farmers. However, we believe that Bill C-4 is a badly flawed piece of legislation which will undermine the board. I want to make it clear that our caucus will oppose Bill C-4 because we believe it to be faulty legislation.
In our judgment the test must be whether Bill C-4 will make the Canadian Wheat Board weaker or stronger. It is our contention, sadly, that this will weaken the Canadian Wheat Board.
As I said, we tried to fix this at the committee stage but the Liberals said no. Therefore we have no alternative but to oppose.
History shows that the wheat board has had for more than six decades overwhelming support from farmers. It was the farmers in the first place who demanded the Canadian Wheat Board. They supported it six decades ago and still support it now. The proof, which is a matter of public record, is that as recently as one year ago 63% of barley growers voted to have the board continue marketing that crop.
Why do farmers support the wheat board? Quite simply it is because the CWB has 60 years of international experience and is recognized as one of the top grain marketing organizations in the world. The western grain marketing panel asked representatives of grain marketing countries to rank their major grain exporters. What it found is that the CWB in Canada ranked number one in the world for marketing the highest quality of wheat at the best price.
Farmers, therefore, by and large support the wheat board. The New Democrats join them in that support. However, Bill C-4 is a badly flawed piece of legislation that will serve to undermine the board, which is why we are opposing these changes.
How does it undermine the board? For one thing, Bill C-4 will propose cash buying. We believe that this will undermine a fundamental pillar of the wheat board and thereby undermine farmer confidence in it. There are essentially three pillars of the Canadian Wheat Board, price pooling, government guarantees and single desk selling. We believe that two of these are at risk, price pooling and government guarantees. If we adopted some of the Reform motions the third pillar would be gone or severely restricted as well, the single desk selling aspect.
Under the terms of Bill C-4 the wheat board will be able to buy grains from anyone, anywhere, at any time and at any price. This disrupts the board's long practice of buying grain from farmers at announced prices and distributing profits to all on an equitable basis.
Second, Bill C-4 proposes a contingency fund which could cost farmers as much as $570 million in check-offs. The fund is not needed. Farmers cannot afford it. They do not generally understand that this is going to impact on them and they sure as heck are not going to like it when they find out that it does impact on them.
This proposal on the contingency fund flows from the provision for cash buying. A contingency fund would not be necessary if Ottawa continued to provide financial guarantees to the board as it has always done. We want the Canadian government to continue to provide guarantees beyond the initial purchase for the Canadian Wheat Board rather than passing this buck to farmers, and that is the gist of an NDP amendment that was voted down last night by the silent Liberal majority.
Finally there is the question of governance. For 60 years the wheat board, as a crown agency, has done an admirable job for farmers. Now the government is suggesting that the board cease to be a crown agency and it says that Bill C-4 will put farmers in control of the wheat board's destiny.
Bill C-4 proposes a 15 member board of directors, 10 elected by producers and 5 appointed by Ottawa. If there is to be a board of directors, we have no problem with the government's naming some members to that board. Because the government is to have considerable financial exposure it is only reasonable and logical that it have some window into the board's operation. That, too, was reflected on how we voted last night.
However, under Bill C-4 the minister goes the extra mile by retaining the authority to pick the president of the board of directors, a person who will also double as the chief executive officer of the CWB, and our caucus is opposed to this.
It was interesting to hear the minister responsible for the wheat board talk glowingly this morning about how this bill was to put farmers firmly in the driver's seat. We think that this provision will firmly put them in the back seat, not the driver's seat.
We believe this gives the government too much control over a board of directors that should really be accountable to farmers and it gives the government too much control over the daily operations of the wheat board.
We believe the board of directors should have the authority to choose the president and CEO and we urged the minister to make this amendment, again unfortunately to no avail.
If the wheat board is to have a board of directors, elections must be fair, open and transparent. These should be elections by and for farmers without any interference from vested corporate interest or anyone else for that matter.
The amendments we put forward propose such a measure of fair elections, meaning one producer and one vote. Fair elections mean a limit as well on the campaign spending of candidates, just as there are in federal and provincial elections, so that wealthy individuals or wealthy corporations do not have an unfair advantage.
The wheat board is a $6 billion industry in this country and certain corporate interests would love to get their hot little hands on it. We do not want them using their deep pockets to influence unduly elections to the board of directors.
Turning to the inclusion clause, it is one of the things which a number of farmers generally support, to make provision for the inclusion of addition grains under wheat board jurisdiction. Under Bill C-72 the wheat board was given the ability to exclude grains from the board's authority, so it is only fair and reasonable again that farmers or producers could vote to add extra grains as well. Such an inclusion would occur only after a vote of producers. It would be democratic. Our caucus strongly supports the inclusion clause but there is much concern about how a vote to include an additional grain would be actually triggered.
We proposed this specific amendment. It stipulated that the process for inclusion be the same as excluding a grain; namely, the board of directors of the wheat board ask for it and the farmers, the producers of the commodity, would then vote on it. These are sensible and moderate propositions in sharp contrast to some of the venom which has been spread in recent months by the coalition against Bill C-4. I will come back to that in a few moments.
The activities of this coalition really are nothing more than a frontal attack on the Canadian Wheat Board, an attempt to do through the back door what it was unable to do through the front door in the plebiscite on barely in 1997. One of the big objections to the coalition against Bill C-4 is the insistence that the inclusion clause be dropped.
We say that the debate about the wheat board is a debate for farmers and not for corporate greed and self-interest. We ask those, including members of the Reform Party and the agri-business lobby, why they are worried about a possible producer vote to include a grain. Why are they afraid of a vote by producers? Why not simply let the farmers decided on what they want to include or exclude?
We were somewhat taken aback yesterday when the minister responsible for the wheat board proposed a death bed repentance, an 11th hour amendment that would do away with both the inclusion and exclusion clause. This is exactly what this coalition lobby against Bill C-4 has demanded. The amendment would have allowed the minister responsible for the wheat board to choose when there would be a vote to either include or exclude a grain.
We said no because we think the intent of this bill is to give more power to the board of directors, then immediately the proposal from the minister responsible will be for him to take that authority back. It was an attempt to grab power back from the board of directors even before it was handed over. We do not believe in that. That is why we voted as we did last evening.
We think the Liberals cannot be trusted on the Canadian Wheat Board. We are dealing with the Minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, the same minister who in the 35th Parliament managed to do away with the Crow benefit at great cost to western Canadian grain farmers. There are those who sincerely believe that Bill C-4 will be used by the government to privatize the wheat board down the road or to do away with it entirely in future rounds of trade negotiations. We understand the World Trade Organization will begin deliberations late in 1999.
We know only too well that the free trade agreement and NAFTA have restricted the ability of our governments to act in our national public interest. We know too that the United States routinely attacks the wheat board's activities, not to mention its attacks on other Canadian agricultural marketing agencies. We expect the assault to continue at the negotiations of the World Trade Organization.
Let me turn to Reform's stand on the Canadian Wheat Board. It is our contention that Reform members, many of whom managed to talk out of both sides of their mouths on this issue, say they support the wheat board but they also support dual marketing.
I listened with great interest to the Reform member for Prince George—Peace River, who has been leading his party's position on this. He said at the outset of his speech this morning that his party does not oppose the Canadian Wheat Board, and then he mentioned eastern Canadians do not have the misfortune of being under the Canadian Wheat Board. This is the kind of double speak we hear regularly from the members of this party. I do not think there is any question they would like to see the Canadian Wheat Board disappear as quickly as possible.
It is our contention that dual marketing cannot exist with single desk selling. It would quickly destroy the Canadian Wheat Board.
The Reform Party never wants to talk about the reference by Mr. Justice Muldoon in Alberta on the Alberta charter challenge against the board's authority as a single desk marketer of barley. Justice Muldoon said that dual marketing would do away with the wheat board and would simply be a transition to an open market.
That is something Reformers refuse to acknowledge. However it is a fact and we would like to hear them talk about it in some detail. In fact Reformers are fundamentally opposed to the wheat board and do everything possible to attack it in their blind ideology and extremist rhetoric.
I would like to speak to the Reform amendment we are technically debating. Reformers say the wheat board is a dark and secretive institution because its books are not open to the auditor general and access to information laws.
Let us deal with some of the facts. The CWB is a $6 billion a year operation. Parliament requires that an external independent auditor scrutinize the wheat board's books on an annual basis. The auditor is Deloitte & Touche. Each year a report is filed with parliament where it can be examined and questioned at any length. I have looked through the Deloitte & Touche annual report. The last one was issued in 1996. The auditors pronounced the wheat board to be in good shape.
It is true that the wheat board is exempt from provisions of the Access to Information Act. We have delved into this matter and are satisfied that the overriding reason for it is the question of customer confidentiality with respect to the conduct of the wheat board's commercial activities. If customers, big and small, cannot be assured that their business dealings with the wheat board will be held in confidence, they will obviously go elsewhere to do their business.
It is interesting that Reformers and the same groups that frequently claim the wheat board does not maximize returns to producers would by this amendment undercut the board's ability to do just that. I am certain the Canadian Wheat Board provides more accountability than the other grain marketers operating in the country at the present time.
We in the NDP caucus say to those detractors of the Canadian Wheat Board that it is accountable to the people of Canada through parliament and through a public, external audit which is available to anyone who requires it. The Canadian Wheat Board is a far more open process and is far more open to scrutiny than the corporations that bankroll the Reform Party or the coalition against Bill C-4.
I was interested in the comments of the somewhat leather-lunged member from Calgary West this morning, a former employee of the National Citizens' Coalition. Clause 27 of the NCC's official bylaw expressly forbids any member involvement in the organization. It states:
Public members shall not be entitled to receive notice of or to attend any meeting of the members of the corporation and shall not be entitled to vote at any such meeting.
So much for openness, transparency and accountability.
New Democrats have always supported the Canadian Wheat Board. We believe it is in the best interest of farmers. However, Bill C-4, as I have tried to indicate in my remarks, is badly flawed legislation. It weakens two of the three pillars of the board and will serve to undermine farmers' confidence in it.
Our caucus has endeavoured to improve the bill but the truly silent Liberal majority has refused to accept any of our amendments. Therefore we reluctantly oppose Bill C-4.