Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to rise in the House on this particular emergency topic of agriculture.
For a number of the participants who have spoken in this debate, there is a degree of frustration being felt in the Chamber. Mine is a frustration of a member who was here in the last parliament. We thought we discharged our responsibilities, as members of parliament from all parties, to raise the subject of this crisis and to point out some solutions for the government. In short, we discharged our responsibilities to the best of our abilities.
Our frustration probably pales in comparison to the frustration that was felt by the farmers who came to Ottawa, who lobbied, who buttonholed members of parliament, who called meetings in their communities and who staged tractor demonstrations to draw attention to the farm crisis.
It does not matter whether it is Saskatchewan or Manitoba, or the corn and soybean producers in Ontario, or the problem that has come to light recently in Prince Edward Island with potatoes. I am sure my colleague from Nova Scotia will be addressing that particular issue later in the debate.
The frustration is aggravated when we hear the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, whose remarks I listened to carefully earlier this evening, acknowledging that there are particular financial hurts out there. He specifically indicated the grain and oilseed producers.
That in itself is not new either. Going back to 1997 and 1998 it was acknowledged even by the agriculture minister that the major hurt was with the grain and oilseed producers. What came out of that, with our lobbying and the lobbying of others, was the agricultural income disaster assistance program, AIDA. Who did it help the least? The grain and oilseed producers.
However, it helped other people. It was based on an Alberta program that was really designed for the red meat sector. It was not designed to help grain and oilseed producers. Why? Essentially, if we plotted it on a graph, the changes are very slight. They have been slight downward changes in grains and oilseeds over the past number of years. If we are dealing with livestock, we see sharp spikes. The up tilt is large for three or four years then all of sudden there is an abrupt drop. That triggers some assistance for those farmers.
It is frustration about that. It is frustration when we hear the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food say he will do more. The question that comes to mind is, when will he and the government do more?
The minister responsible for rural development, or the provincial secretary, says that agriculture is extremely important to everybody here. Please tell that to the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister. With due respect to the agriculture minister and the secretary for rural development, they cannot do that on their own. It has to be a collective effort. It has to be a team effort that involves all of the cabinet, especially the leadership of the cabinet.
On that point, may I quote from an e-mail that most of us who are participating in this debate probably received. It states:
Had the government implemented strategies three years ago to reduce government imposed costs; to deal with growing farm debt; to develop and implement safety net programs which are effective for grains and oilseeds; and to provide targeted assistance where it was needed; you would not likely have been called to participate in an emergency debate tonight on agriculture.
I believe that to be absolutely correct.
I want to take a few minutes to outline where this crisis originated. I believe that if we do not know where we came from it will be much harder to plot any solutions. Essentially, I believe what happened was that 1993 was a very significant year in this entire debate. It was not only the election of the first term of the government, but it was also the coming into effect of the GATT Uruguay round, and it was the first time agriculture was addressed at the GATT. There was an agreement of good faith. All the signatories agreed to reduce their subsidies and domestic supports by 20% over five years.
I believe the government, which had a mantra of eliminating the deficit as quickly as possible, chose to hide behind the GATT Uruguay round agreement and to slash, cut and hack subsidies. They cut supports not by 20% or 30% or 40%, but by 60% over the five year period to the point where our farmers were unable to compete with their counterparts in Europe and the United States.
The classic example from western Canada is the elimination of the Crow benefit in 1995 which costs Canadian farmers in western Canada more than $600 million each and every year. In the province of Saskatchewan alone it costs about $320 million.
Other speakers earlier in this debate have reported on the disparity between supports. I need not do that. It is on the record. I would just point out that it is because of those supports that food freedom day is coming earlier and earlier in the country. We are paying so little for food that is being produced by our farm families.
In the last year, and people may dispute the numbers, the number of farms reported by Statistics Canada that were no longer operating was approximately 6,400 in the province of Saskatchewan. People who know this far better than I will tell us that in good years and bad years, since the 1930s in Saskatchewan, there have always been 1,500 farms that go out of business. There are fewer farms but the ones that remain are getting larger. However, 6,400 is a sharp increase in the number of farms that have gone out of business.
It was acknowledged as well that it was because of the devastating cuts, government officials conceded. Mike Gifford, who used to be the trade commissioner for Canada and reported to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, reported that we could have $2 billion worth of inputs or support payments to Canadian farmers immediately without risking any degree of retaliation.
We had AIDA which did not really work for the group that it was intended to work for in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They are primarily corn and oilseed producers, but the program was based on the Alberta livestock program. We follow that now with a Canadian farm income program which we believe has less money in it than the AIDA program. As well, we have all of the problems around that with getting payments for farmers to assist with that program.
The Secretary of State for Rural Development said it was important that this debate not be just a litany of the problems, that there should be some solutions. He was encouraging members to come forward with solutions. I submit to the hon. member that there is no shortage of solutions, which have been proposed by any number of farm organizations and political parties.
Agricore, for example, has a number of what I think are workable short term solutions. Agricore is suggesting that AIDA and CFIP will not address the long term price depressions which are now hurting producers. It suggests that the government needs to work with safety net committees to design and implement new ways to support the farm economy, such as a payment through the net income stabilization account directly to the producer, as well as an increased contribution to the provinces for funding of companion programs.
The provinces, under this proposal, would decide how the programs would operate in their respective provinces. Companion programs would work better than national programs because they would recognize the differences that exist in each province and accordingly would have different solutions. The requirement for a provincial contribution would be waived. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture is also proposing companion programs.
In the last election campaign, the New Democratic Party had a whole farm safety net program which we thought required putting in $1.4 billion per year for each of the next four years. That would basically double the amount of money available under our safety net programs and would at the same time provide $100 million for a program to help young farmers get established on the land and a program for older farmers averaging 58 and 60 years of age which would ease them off the farm.
I referred to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. The federation suggests: adequately funded farm income programs; companion programs that meet farmers' needs on a provincial basis; and NISA rules that allow farmers to withdraw funds when they need them.
If I may just pause there for a minute, Mr. Speaker, that last point is extremely important. It seems to me that NISA is an extremely paternalistic program. I have had farmers tell me that they have taken money out of their NISA account and then decided later on in that year that they would like to take out more money. They had not taken out enough because their crop did not come through to the extent that they thought it would. They were rejected because they could only make one withdrawal in any 12 month period. That is not an adequate solution. These people have to be given responsibility. They know far better than any of us here what their specific problems are. If there is money there and they cannot access it and withdraw it, that surely is another great frustration and one that ought to be very simply dealt with.
The CFA also suggests that we need a disaster program that is structured to deliver funds quickly rather than delay relief for farmers. That is a reference to the fact that only 51% of the 1999 AIDA claims have been paid out thus far.
The CFA goes on to suggest that we need $900 million per year for the next three years to restore safety net programs.
We have numbers ranging from $900 million a year to $1.4 billion to more than that. There are farmers who phone to talk to me. I am thinking of Lloyd Pletz in Balcarres, Saskatchewan, or Murray Downing in Manitoba. I am sure they phone other members of parliament as well to talk about programs and the specific ideas they have for costs of production. They feel that our farmers are simply unable to compete against the high subsidies coming from the United States and Europe.
There are long term solutions as well, not just solutions for the short term. I agree with previous speakers who have acknowledged that we do need a short term program to get farmers out on the land in a month, six weeks or two months' time, but we certainly do need a long term safety net program that is going to work for all of our farms and all of our farm families.
Some of those suggestions include: tax rebates on fuel; cost recovery; and reconsideration of user fees, which shot up dramatically as the government was consumed with eliminating the deficit back in the mid-nineties. I know they have been capped at this point, but I think the government needs to reduce and in some cases eliminate them. In these times of crisis, total farm debt in the last few years has increased by more than 44%, which needs to be addressed as well.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture was front and centre in the demonstration yesterday in Cornwall, if I read the papers correctly, Mr. Speaker, a demonstration you are acquainted with. The OFA talks about the need for safety nets, freight subsidies and other support programs and about restoring that support to the 1993 levels that I talked about earlier in regard to the costs of production, in order to subsidize the gap between farmers' financial capabilities and the average crop production.
We know that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food will be meeting with his provincial counterparts in Quebec City early next month. We would really like to see some announcements prior to that so that farmers can prepare for their spring planting.
Let me refer to the agreement that was signed by provincial ministers in Regina last week. This was a meeting they requested, without the federal minister and officials being present. In their communiqué at the end of that meeting they said, and I quote:
It is now up to the federal government to fulfill its responsibilities and immediately invest accordingly to address this urgent situation. Provinces agreed to work with the federal government to prepare a framework that is predictable in the long term, effective and fair to all provinces. This framework will take into account a number of factors including the specific features and needs of each of the provinces and the relative economic importance of their agricultural sector in Canada. The ministers hold that integrated risk management in agriculture will require a joint response. This means a substantial contribution from Ottawa. While this urgent situation is occurring in the provinces, the additional funds required are in Ottawa.
Let me close by trying to encapsule some of the messages that the government needs to heed very quickly. We have heard them from different parts of the House during the debate this evening.
The first message is that over time the federal government has gone from taking the major responsibility for safety nets and disaster funding to a position of requiring provinces to pay 40% of the cost. Even though agriculture has always been jointly administered, it is only in the last number of years that the provinces have been specifically instructed that if they are going to have a safety net program they have to pony up 40% of the money. We are in a situation in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where we have a relatively small tax base and a lot of farmland, which is making it extremely difficult for provincial governments to come up with the 40% that is required to have an effective safety net program and effective protection for farm families. That is one thing that needs to be taken into account.
Second, over time, the federal government, going back 5 years and probably 13 or 14 years prior to the arrival of this government, took away major programs that helped farmers, including the two price wheat system, which my colleague from Regina—Qu'Appelle will tell you came off in 1988, and the Crow rate in 1995.
Third, farmers have faced and continue to face a number of challenges, such as international subsidies funded by the national treasuries of the European Union and the United States. The numbers have been talked about earlier in the debate in regard to how low our subsidies are in comparison to those trading partners.
Fourth, there are declining margins as input costs eat up more of the revenue, and there are the continued production and price risks associated with farming.
In conclusion, what I am trying to say is that farmers in this country simply need to know whether the federal government is going to stand behind them or if they are going to have to address all of the farm issues by themselves as they have essentially had to do over the last number of years. That is the important question that needs to be addressed tonight.