moved that Bill C-387, an act to establish a national committee to develop policies and procedures to ensure coordination in the delivery of programs by governments in the case of agricultural losses or disasters created by weather or pests, the coordination of the delivery of information, assistance, relief and compensation and study the compliance of such programs with World Trade Organization requirements, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to speak to a private member's Bill C-387 that was submitted. Unfortunately, it was not deemed to be votable by the committee.
However, I will put the House on notice that I too will re-submit the bill in a different form, and I will re-submit the bill in a different form, and I will re-submit the bill in a different form until it does have the opportunity to have a vote in the House. I feel very strongly about this issue which obviously resonates with the farm community across the country. It certainly resonates with the constituents who I represent in the constituency of Brandon—Souris and the farmers who produce the food for Canadians across this great country of ours.
I would like to begin the debate today with an excerpt from a letter that was sent to the minister of agriculture on February 15 from the national safety nets advisory committee during the negotiations surrounding the AIDA program. It states:
The majority of the National Safety Nets Advisory Committee would like to express its disagreement with Agriculture Canada and provincial governments regarding the changes they intend to make to the Farm Income Disaster Program. The committee does not support the program as it is currently designed....We are seriously concerned about the precedents which these decisions set on for the next round of Safety Net negotiations. The program as designed now no longer provides sufficient support to farmers facing a crisis.
That letter came to the minister from the minister's own appointed national safety net's advisory committee.
The minister and the department of agriculture decided on their own to make some substantive changes to the recommendations that were put forward by the safety nets committee. Those changes included the aspect of negative margins not being covered under the new AIDA program. It suggested that NISA had to be drawn down prior to any access to the AIDA program. It dealt with a three year averaging as opposed to a five year averaging, or perhaps even longer as is the case with a lot of provincial programs. This was done completely without the input of the national safety nets advisory committee. It was done ad hoc by the department.
If only the minister of agriculture had actually listened and acted on the words of the committee, perhaps he would not be facing the criticism he is now facing with respect to the AIDA program. The minister dropped the ball on the design and delivery of the AIDA program so badly that the producers and producer groups, such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, have completely lost trust and faith in the minister and the government's commitment to agriculture.
In a move last week, after my party meeting with key industry stakeholders, the CFA decided that it was going to form its own advisory committee and take steps in discussions that the minister has so far failed to do.
This issue is particularly important now given the fact that the minister of agriculture, in a letter on March 24 to the standing committee on agriculture, said:
It is the intent that over the course of the calendar year 1999, we will establish a new direction and enter into new agreements with the provinces on the longer-term direction for agricultural safety nets.
It is important that these discussions begin immediately with the input of all industry stakeholders. It is vital that there be more transparency and fairness in the process.
That was a quote from the minister asking for transparency, negotiations and consultation. The very stakeholders who he wishes to consult with have now said that they will set up their own program, their own safety nets advisory committee because they do not trust the agriculture minister to put forward what they believe are the right, fair and equitable programs.
Furthermore, world trade talks start again in November. The Americans and the European Union will again beef up their subsidies on agriculture to strengthen their positions at the talks. Canadian farmers are going to be caught in the middle and the need for a long term safety net strategy will again become readily apparent. The time to put these in place is now.
I want to be perfectly clear. An advisory committee can work in the future if it includes representation from all three levels of government. The federal government, the provincial government and stakeholders must have representation and must be given more power to make recommendations to the minister. Bill C-387 would do just that.
Whether it be the ice storm of January 1998, the floods in Manitoba and the Saguenay or the droughts in Nova Scotia, it is more often farmers who are hit the hardest financially. When natural disasters occur through weather and pests, or agricultural losses through falling commodity prices, the federal government must take a more proactive than reactive approach and start developing policies in advance that benefit our producers in good times and in bad.
The purpose of my private members' bill is to help the government in doing just that. The bill would create a committee that would assist the minister of agriculture in developing policies and procedures to ensure the coordination between different government authorities with respect to the delivery of information, assistance, relief and compensation.
The committee would monitor situations on an ongoing basis and discuss what income protection measures are available to farmers in the event of disasters or unusual conditions caused by weather or pests, taking into account such areas as crop insurance, flood and draught protection programs and NISA.
The committee's mandate could and should be expanded to include monitoring the effects of the low commodity prices on the agricultural industry and the primary producer's farm income. The committee has the power to create subcommittees, much like our standing committees, to pursue such ideas.
The committee would also investigate and advise the minister on the compliance of any income assistance program with the WTO requirements. The act would be cited as the national agricultural relief coordination act.
The committee would consist of a membership of up to 21 members: three nominated by the minister of agriculture: one nominated by each provincial agricultural minister; five should be representatives of farmers and be nominated by such organizations representing farmers; and three should be representatives of industry related to agricultural products and be nominated by such organizations representing the industry.
The last example of an ad hoc assistance program, the AIDA program, was done behind closed doors with the bureaucracy of the department of agriculture. The model was put forward and, after the fact, the minister of agriculture went out to sell it to the provinces. As we recognized, a number of those provinces were not terribly receptive to the program model that was put forward by the government.
Does it not make sense that the 10 agricultural ministers should have a say in how agriculture is going to be dealt with in their own provinces? Does it not make sense that rather than forcing a program onto the provinces that those provinces should be part of the negotiating process to put the program together in the first place?
We had many problems when AIDA was first unveiled. The problems, quite frankly, were due to a lack of communications and the ability of the federal and provincial governments to work together. This speaks to the lack of co-operative federalism that I see is so very important in trying to work with the provinces. I was told this did not happen because the provinces would not work with the federal government. That comment came from a federal bureaucrat.
My answer to that comment is: Does that not cry for leadership? Should there not be leadership at the federal level that will bring the provinces together so that they can all agree on a package, on a program, on a philosophy and on a vision for agriculture? Or, is it simply best to have a federal government design the program and then force it on the provinces? It does not work nor does it speak to the bigger issue as to where we should be heading in the next decade or two decades and the philosophy that we should share for agriculture in this country.
As members are aware, there already exits a national safety net review committee. My bill is an extension of that committee, expanding the role, power and membership in the committee. This bill would give an advisory committee more teeth, more power and more ability to react and act in a positive fashion. It would create a more permanent committee rather simply an ad hoc committee that is created at the whim of the minister and legislates the tabling of its reports before parliament.
No longer can the minister simply strike a committee and then disband the committee at whim based on the old political optics of the day. This bill would put into place and legislate the requirement of this committee with criteria and ground rules and with the ability to make a difference.
It is clear that the current advisory committee has not been able to have the desired impact on the safety net process. Farm organizations spent a significant amount of time developing the efficient disaster relief program during the farm income crisis through the current national safety nets advisory committee.
At the end of the day most of the recommendations were not taken into account when the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food designed the AIDA program. What a waste of time when in fact the people who really understand and know the issues are not listened to. This has to change. Our industry has told politicians time and time again that we need to re-evaluate our income protection system for farmers.
The recent discussion surrounding the agriculture income disaster assistance program of the minister of agriculture is just one example of the need for a strong advisory committee with actual power to help in developing the policies and coordinating assistance programs.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture stated in a letter addressed to me:
The farm community has lost confidence in the process by which provincial and federal governments negotiate. If the farm community is to regain its confidence in the safety nets debate of the future, a more honest, open relationship between industry and government has to be developed. Therefore, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture is supporting your proposal to establish a national committee to develop policies and coordinate the delivery of federation programs.
Furthermore, in a letter to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food dated March 17, 1999, the CFA stated:
—a transparent process should be developed including consultation with all parties and full disclosure of all information. Therefore, we encourage you to create a committee composed of federal and provincial representatives, and farm organizations that will examine the safety nets package and identify different options.
That is exactly to what the bill speaks, exactly what not only the CFA but farm organizations across the country need: open and honest transparency where in fact we can sit down, share opinions with others and develop what is necessary for agriculture, not only for today but for the future.
Bill C-387 speaks to the concerns raised by the CFA for more transparency and disclosure of information. In fact the bill specifically calls for all reports to be laid before parliament, not the situation and certainly not the case right now with the national advisory safety nets committee.
That being said, it is also important that we emphasize the word consistency when we talk about coordinating assistance programs. This committee would work toward alleviating any problems with achieving consistency in the delivery and co-ordination of assistance programs.
There must be consistency in determining the level of assistance. It should not simply be based on the amount of publicity a disaster gets. Ad hoc programs provide ad hoc solutions. With the environmental and climatic changes that this country and the world are undergoing, it is vital now more than ever to monitor these issues on an ongoing basis and develop consistent policies which would help farmers deal with these changes both financially and realistically.
Consistency is the key word here. One of the problems that we have when we deal with ad hoc programs, whether from a natural disaster perspective or from a commodity price perspective, is that we must be consistent among the regions. One region cannot be pitted against another one. We cannot just simply say that because there is more publicity for this area there has to be a difference in program. The programs must be developed so that they are equal and have some equality within regions. It is important that this tripartite committee be struck to do just that.
I thank the House for the time to put forward Bill C-387. I can also suggest that not being a votable item this time it will be put forward again in committee. Next time I hope it is votable so that the House can have a say in what happens.