Mr. Speaker, I thank hon. members from all parties for allowing me to share the time of the member for Peace River on the British Columbia side.
Any initiative to reform the Canadian Wheat Board should be a good thing. Certainly there is a need for some reform of the Canadian Wheat Board. I think there would be no argument from the grain farmers in western Canada on this issue. They all recognize that. They certainly have different ideas as to what kind of change is needed but any initiative should be a good thing.
In my speech I will try to answer the question, is Bill C-4 really the legislation that is needed to provide the needed reform of the Canadian Wheat Board? I will do this under four headings. The first is, what is the real debate, what should the real debate be with regard to the Canadian Wheat Board. The second regards the opposition to Bill C-4 coming from the farming community. In fact, the opposition is really against every part of Bill C-4. Third is the government's handling of the whole process of changing the wheat board, in particular the handling through Bill C-4 and the process which led up to that. Finally, I will talk about where we go from here.
Anybody who believes this legislation is going to put an end to the issue of changing the wheat board is foolish. The debate will become more and more vociferous. It will increase across western Canada, in particular. I believe it will also expand to central Canada as people in central Canada see how unfairly western grain farmers are treated.
First, what is the real debate? There are four main areas that debate should be focused on regarding change to the wheat board. One is monopoly.
As the hon. member who just spoke said, often Reform has been accused of being against the wheat board. That is completely untrue. We have been desperately trying to change the wheat board so that it does not become a completely obsolete body, so that it does not become a body that really has no value at all to western Canadian farmers.
The wheat board provides a valuable service to western Canadian farmers. I would believe that every member of our party, and I cannot speak for all of them but I have certainly talked to them, believes the wheat board provides a useful service to western Canadian farmers. Therefore that is not the issue.
Reform is trying to change the wheat board so that it is a much more useful body to Canadian farmers, the people it really concerns. Western Canadian farmers are the only farmers who are affected to any great extent by the Canadian Wheat Board Act. They are in fact the farmers who pay for the operation of the wheat board.
Again, the real debate revolves around the monopoly of the wheat board. It revolves around accountability or lack of accountability of the wheat board. It revolves around the openness or lack of openness of the wheat board and around the very basic question of whose grain is it anyway.
That is a question that more and more western Canadian farmers are asking. Whose grain is it? If it is our grain, then why on earth are we not given a chance to market that grain in the way we see fit? That can be done, just to be clear, with the wheat board playing a very important role in marketing grain.
First I will talk a bit about the monopoly. Of course, that is probably the most important issue in regard to the Canadian Wheat Board. Most western Canadian farmers certainly support the board, but as we have seen from poll results, a majority do not support the monopoly. We have seen the poll in Alberta on barley which showed that 67%, two-thirds of farmers, do not support the monopoly. On wheat, 62% do not support the monopoly. In my constituency it is up to close to 90% who do not support the monopoly. The issue is not whether we support the wheat board or not but whether we want to give farmers a choice as to how they sell their grain.
The second and third issues which I believe should be what the real debate is focused on concern accountability and openness. In terms of accountability, the minister argued that this legislation would somehow improve the accountability of the wheat board. It is arguable that it might to some small degree. It is also arguable that it will not improve it at all.
What happens in that regard will depend on what the board of directors decides to some extent, and also on who is elected to the board of directors. An important issue which has yet to be dealt with is who will be eligible to vote and how will the directors be elected. In any case, the degree of accountability resulting from this bill will be very small and certainly not what farmers have called for.
Farmers have called for openness in the wheat board. This issue is so important to farmers that we have had a group established, a coalition. Such is unusual in western Canadian agriculture particularly in grain farming, but a coalition is working and is focused strictly on more accountability in the wheat board and in opening up the wheat board.
The second and third points, the accountability and openness of the wheat board, should be the focus of a debate on the wheat board.
Fourth is the issue of whose grain it is. Groups have formed just to deal with that issue. It is a property rights issue. I am sure other members later in this debate will talk about that issue.
Clearly at least in a democratic society, we would expect that the private citizen who produces a commodity would have a right to market that commodity in the way they see fit. If we look at the marketplace in Canada, in North America and around the world, in most cases with most commodities that is the case.
General Motors, Ford and the small companies operating in our local communities have the right to sell their commodities on an open market in a way they see fit. Why is it that of all groups, grain farmers in western Canada, not even across the country, but grain farmers in western Canada, are restricted from selling their commodities in the way they see fit? That question is certainly not answered by this bill.
Those are the issues that should be debated. Unfortunately this bill does very little to add to the debate in those areas.
I will discuss this legislation in terms of the opposition in the farming community to all parts of this bill. Anyone who has followed this bill and who has received letters from farm groups and individual farmers would know that is the case. Every significant part of this bill is opposed by at least one farm group and often by many groups.
A coalition has been organized strictly to go against Bill C-4. The coalition has focused on the inclusion clause. It is concerned that other commodities such as canola and peas which are important to its members may be put under the control of the wheat board. They were so concerned that they formed a coalition. They have been lobbying as hard as possible to get the inclusion clause and other changes in Bill C-4 thrown out because they think they are counterproductive and will make things worse.
The list of member organizations which form this coalition is quite impressive. It includes Canadian Canola Growers Association, Manitoba Canola Growers Association, Flax Growers Western Canada, Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission, Western Barley Growers Association, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Saskatchewan Canola Growers Association, Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Canadian Oilseed Processors Association, Winnipeg Commodity Exchange, and Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. These are major western Canadian organizations. This issue was important enough for them to form a coalition against Bill C-4.
To be fair most of those groups are against the wheat board monopoly. They think farmers should have a choice to use the board or to market in some other way if they choose. That has been the main focus of their actions over the past years. However the opposition comes from all sides of this issue.
I will read three small parts of a letter from the wheat board advisory committee which is also against this legislation although it favours the monopoly: “We think change is necessary, but Bill C-4 closes doors on options and it should be withdrawn”. Even the wheat board advisory committee calls for the withdrawal of this legislation. That is how bad this legislation is. It goes on to say “The government has spent millions of dollars to arrive at this point and it is our clear view that these changes have the potential to very quickly destroy the Canadian Wheat Board”. This is from the advisory committee.
Is the intent of this minister to destroy the wheat board? Is the minister approaching this issue in an underhanded way to try to destroy the board? If we look at his actions and examine the recommendations made by the panel and by people who made presentations to the committee, he has missed the point on all counts. I wonder if that is his intent. Mr. Speaker, you may not think I am sincere on this but I am. The thought has occurred to me. I may be wrong but the thought has certainly occurred to me and to many other farmers across western Canada.
The final quote from the letter by the wheat board advisory committee refers to the election of the board of directors. The minister has argued that the board of directors makes this a very democratic organization that is very answerable to farmers: “I really cannot see how this elected board of directors puts farmers in the driver's seat”, said Wilfred Harder.
Also Mr. Harder from the Canadian Wheat Board advisory committee said that the minister could fire five directors including the chief executive officer at any time and the federal cabinet through regulation could override any policy of the board. He went on to say that the committee also had problems with cash buying, negotiable producer certificates, the loss of crown agency status and the creation of a contingency fund.
These issues are the key issues dealt with in Bill C-4. This came not from one of the groups that wants to end the monopoly but rather from the advisory committee to the Canadian Wheat Board which wants to maintain the monopoly.
I have a very strong personal opinion about the wheat board monopoly. I am very strongly against it. It is a very emotional issue for me because it involves my people. When I say my people I mean my family. I mean my friends and neighbours who are involved in grain farming. I mean the thousands of people in my constituency who are involved in grain farming. I mean people from across western Canada who are involved in grain farming.
We are not tinkering with some small aspect of their lives. We are dealing with their fundamental right to market their grain in the way they sit fit. We are talking about their very livelihoods.
I could refer to letters. I have a stack of them from groups that have spoken out against the bill: United Grain Growers, a very important grain marketing company in western Canada; Canadian Farm Enterprise Network; Saskatchewan Canola Growers; Western Stock Growers and others. I have a stack of letters but I do not have time to read them to the House.