Mr. Speaker, I rise in relation to an alleged question of privilege raised last Tuesday by the member for Prince George—Peace River pertaining to Bill C-4, an act to amend the Canadian Wheat Board Act.
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to you, Mr. Speaker, for ensuring that on this alleged point the government side is heard in this House in response to the five interventions that were heard from the Reform Party.
I want to assure you, Mr. Speaker, that in relation to Bill C-4, there has been no contempt of this House nor any contempt for the office or the authority of the Speaker.
The ongoing discussion about how to change the Canadian Wheat Board has been under way both in this House and across the prairies for at least 25 years. It has been especially intense since the early 1990s when the former Mulroney government tried at that time to diminish the wheat board without reference to Parliament and without substantive consultations with farmers.
When I inherited those problems after the 1993 election, I was determined to follow proper procedures inside Parliament, especially in relation to that broad and often fractious western farm community within which there are deeply divided points of view.
The Reform Party of course has the opposition luxury of siding with only one side in the debate. As minister I have to try to build some consensus. One of my common practices in trying to do so is to consult extensively with interested stakeholders and to try very hard to keep them in the loop with ample information as events move along. Through Parliament and through countless public and private meetings, hearings, panels, letters, pamphlets, surveys, e-mails, faxes and the Internet, we have made an exhaustive effort to keep farmers up to date with what is going on with respect to wheat board changes, to answer their questions and most importantly to solicit their advice.
The straight forward meeting with farm leaders which I held on January 21 and which is the Reform Party's sole source of complaint in this alleged question of privilege was part of that open, inclusive and transparent effort to gain the benefit of producer input.
Surely it is ludicrous to suggest that a minister may not even meet with a broad cross-section of interested stakeholders to consult them on matters of vital importance to their livelihoods if a piece of legislation on the same subject happens at that moment to be before Parliament.
The rules do not say that ministers may only consult with the opposition or only with the groups of which the opposition approves. Similarly the rules do not constrain the opposition from meeting outside Parliament with any groups it may want to consult.
In his intervention last Tuesday, the member for Yorkton—Melville admitted that he had done just that the very next day after my meeting. The member for Portage—Lisgar has had meetings about the details of Bill C-4 and many other Reformers have done the same. Their extra-parliamentary meetings to discuss Bill C-4 while that bill is pending before this House are not a breach of privilege. They are not in contempt and neither am I.
Surely adequate consultation with stakeholders is completely consistent with and fundamental to the democratic process. It cannot be a legitimate source of complaint on either side of this House.
In what I have written or said about Bill C-4 in relation to my January 21 meeting or otherwise, I have tried to be crystal clear that the debate in this House is obviously ongoing and that the bill is not yet passed. I suspect that came as no surprise to farmers. If the details change, then there will have to be further consultations again. But in the meantime there is no gag order on any member of this House to prevent them or me from talking with farmers about what is being proposed.
The opposition has urged on a number of occasions that we implement the essence of the 1996 report of the Western Grain Marketing Panel. The essence of that report is a change in corporate governance to create a board of directors for the Canadian Wheat Board with the majority of those directors to be elected by farmers.
When I met with farm leaders on January 21, that is what we were talking about, how to do it right, how to respond to the essence of the panel report.
Last September I asked all the major western farm groups to give me their practical advice on this issue. Many responded with detailed written suggestions including the very right wing organization whose cause the Reform Party is now espousing in this alleged question of privilege.