Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to lead off on this important topic today on behalf of the New Democratic Party caucus.
The record will show that our caucus as been in the forefront of this issue. We have discharged our obligation as an opposition party by bringing the crisis in agriculture to the floor of the House of Commons on numerous occasions. We also brought it to the standing committee on agriculture and to meetings with farm organizations, particularly on the prairies.
Our caucus does not have any difficulty or major disagreement with the resolution before us today. Our disagreement is with the party that has moved this motion because we believe strongly that the crisis in agriculture, especially on the prairies, has been accelerated by the rise of the Reform Party in western Canada and the eager acceptance by the government opposite of some of its half-baked ideas.
Reform members may not like it, but consider their farm policy resolution back in Saskatoon in 1991. They stated that their party's policy was not guided by the interests of producers but by the “demand of consumers for secure supplies of food at the lowest competitive prices”.
That was nothing short of a declaration of war on the family farm. Shilling for this cheap food policy led to predictions at the time that up to one half of the farmers in western Canada could be wiped out. Well, guess what? According to an Angus Reid poll a couple of months ago 46% of western farmers are seriously thinking about packing it in if their current demoralizing financial situation continues.
A mass exodus of farmers should be music to the ears of Reform members. After all, it was their leader who said in Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1992 “The brute truth is that the prairie provinces cannot support the number of farmers they have been supporting”.
This brute truth was corroborated in 1995 by Reform's lead agricultural critic, the member for Kindersley—Lloydminster. The official opposition leader said a few minutes ago that we should listen to Hermanson. Let me quote Mr. Hermanson who said in March 1995:
I am not complaining about the cuts in support to agriculture. I will say it again, so that it is clear to the House. I am not complaining about the cuts in support to agriculture. Probably Reform would have done some of the cutting differently, and I think better.
By “better” the former member undoubtedly meant deeper. When the Liberal government heard the Reform Party's agricultural proposal to shift from government supported to an industry shaped by market forces it put on its happy face and moved as quickly as possible to accommodate those recommendations. It did so by taking a meat axe to government programs relating to agriculture.
The facts of the matter are that all signatories to the 1993 GATT Uruguay round agreed to lower domestic support payments by 20% over five years. The government thought it had a better idea: why not eliminate it by 60%. Why not accommodate Reform and cut much deeper? It was a win-win situation for the government and accordingly it hacked and slashed support payments with a vengeance. Instead of simply agreeing to abide by the 20% GATT rule in reducing domestic support payments the government, as I mentioned, has happily reduced it by 60%.
What is the impact of these cuts? Today, on every dollar of wheat sold the Canadian farmer receives a grand total of nine cents in subsidies. We must contrast that with the 38 cents received by the American wheat grower or the 56 cents in subsidies awarded to the European grower. It is an unconscionable disparity that explains why our farmers are at a huge disadvantage.
I want to address some remarks to the minister of agriculture. The minister told delegates to the united grain growers convention 11 months ago that he was fully aware that as bad as 1998 had been on the prairies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan the outlook for 1999 was even worse. More important, he pledged to do something about it and that something became known as AIDA.
AIDA does not seem to be working very well in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It seems to be working not too badly in British Columbia or Alberta. There are statistics on that. It certainly seems to be working reasonably well in southwestern Ontario where we hear that cheques are in the magnitude of $65,000 or $70,000. In Manitoba, and it is important to note that less than half the producers are even qualifying for anything, the average cheque is about $14,000. In Saskatchewan it is even less, as the member is noting. It is $11,128.00. Again more than half the farmers that are applying under AIDA are not receiving anything.
I am sure it could be agreed that it takes a particular form of genius to predict accurately the provinces most at risk for an upcoming year and then design an assistance program which actually extends more help to the farmers in neighbouring provinces than the farmers that actually need it. It is like calling for emergency highway assistance after seeing a two vehicle accident. Police and ambulance arrive to provide assistance to the people who saw the crash while the victims of the crash remain trapped inside with no one paying them any attention.
Since we are in the middle of the world series it is worth saying that prairie farmers are paraphrasing what Babe Ruth said about another program, that AIDA is not worth a cup of warm spit on the prairies. That is exactly what farmers wanted to tell the agriculture minister to his face last July in Prince Albert. They wanted him to step out of the shadow of the Marlborough Hotel on July 6 and speak so that everyone could hear him, so that there could be a genuine dialogue between farmers and their Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
I was amazed on that occasion that the minister failed to recognize that farmers see the minister of agriculture as their minister. They wanted to talk to their minister and tell him their frustrations about the complicated AIDA forms, the exclusion of negative margins, the inclusion of NISA and off farm income, the low commodity prices and high input costs. In short, these farmers wanted to tell their minister about the state of agriculture as they live it on a daily basis.
Instead of understanding their desire to be heard and to engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue with their minister, the minister of agriculture came across that afternoon as petulant and uncaring to the several hundred farmers in attendance.
Farmers were not interested that day in the minister's six second sound bite. They wanted to talk to him directly. They wanted to tell him in their words what was wrong with AIDA from their point of view and what was needed to correct it. They wanted desperately to tell him that they need an effective, long term, viable safety net program to support them.
We support that on this side of the House as well. Farmers know that for them to be competitive Canada must provide them with levels of domestic support comparable to those provided by our trading competitors. The minister denied prairie farmers that opportunity on that occasion and in their disappointment and frustration some of them reacted.
Because of how poorly AIDA is working on the prairies some people say scrap it, get rid of it. Our caucus does not agree with scrapping the AIDA program. We say again that it seems to be working elsewhere. Therefore it can be made to work in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
However for AIDA to work on the prairies the reference period must be extended to five years or more. The three year reference period is simply too short. A longer period would provide a much more accurate picture as to what is actually happening to net farm income, especially for grains and oilseed producers. In addition to a long reference period, negative margins must be factored in to the AIDA calculation.
In closing, two days ago the Minister of National Defence in Ottawa, in speaking to an audience of current and former peacekeepers, said that the failure to act in the face of misery and hurt when one has the means to correct it is wrong. I pass that message on to the minister of agriculture and indeed the entire government opposite.
The government knows there is unprecedented hurt and stress in rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba. That stress extends beyond the farmgate. It includes grocery and hardware stores, gasoline and implement dealers. Without immediate action the hurt will become unsustainable and unprecedented numbers of farmers and others will simply walk away, devastating our rural way of life.
These injustices must be corrected immediately. On behalf of the caucus I urge the government, through the minister of agriculture, to make the changes to AIDA that are so desperately needed. With the changes outlined here prairie farmers can continue to do what they do as well as anyone in the world, and their sons and daughters can follow in their footsteps with some assurance that with hard work and a bit of luck they too can expect a reasonable living standard. That is what our farm families are seeking and I implore the government to act now before it is too late.