Mr. Speaker, in essence what Bill C-25 would do is expand the mandate of the Farm Credit Corporation. We in the Canadian Alliance, and I as a farmer from Manitoba, support the FCC. Certainly it is a vehicle that the federal government has used over the years to implement federal government policy where the FCC is able to provide a service that is not being provided by the private sector.
We in the Canadian Alliance are still concerned that this expansion will take away from and provide unfair competition to lending institutions like the credit unions as well as farmers, the primary producers, who now have to compete not only with each other in the immediate farming sector, but also with those beyond the primary producer level.
We all know that when lending institutions, including the Farm Credit Corporation, look at who they lend money to they look at the cashflow of the borrower. As it is now with the farm income situation in Canada in many sectors and in many commodities, it may well turn out that the cashflow is insufficient in farmers' primary production, and the money will end up flowing from the Farm Credit Corporation to the agribusinesses as opposed to the farmers. Then where will the farmers get credit?
By extending FCC's lending abilities beyond primary production, the bill would put FCC into direct competition with private lending institutions and would overlap with other government institutions such as the Business Development Bank.
The federal government has various vehicles that are necessary to deliver credit to value added businesses and industrial complexes. However if farmers do not hold primary ownership, the Farm Credit Corporation to a large extent will turn into another Business Development Bank of Canada.
We in the official opposition attempted to correct the problems through amendments to the legislation both at the committee level and during report stage. For example, we brought forward an amendment which would have limited lending to businesses not directly related to primary production.
The amendment, defeated by the government at committee, would have addressed one of our primary concerns; that FCC would shift its focus away from primary production to non-farm businesses. The amendment would have ensured that the needs of farmers do not become secondary to business lending by FCC.
FCC has stated that it will continue to focus on primary producers. That is fine and dandy but it is just an intention. We tried to have the legislation reflect and put on parameters and outside limits as to where FCC could go with its lending. Right now it is virtually unlimited. The legislation did not define who primary producers were. We tried to define that with our amendment but it was defeated.
Farm Credit Corporation has stated that 80% of its internal goal will go to primary producers. It should therefore not have objected to putting the limit into legislation. Why would it not agree to put it in legislation? It obviously wants to ensure it will be totally unhindered if it decides to move away from the primary producer and move its primary lending to agribusiness beyond the farm gate.
We also brought forward an amendment that would have limited FCC's ability to provide lease financing to primary producers only. The amendment would have helped ensure that the focus of FCC remained on primary producers. It would also have limited the government's ability to directly undercut private financial institutions in the lucrative lease market.
Here we get into the issue of unfair competition by a government agency which has all the advantages because it is insulated to a large degree from market forces. FCC has unrestricted ability to undercut private financial institutions. Under the World Trade Organization, this type of unfair activity breaches trade rules and there are mechanisms by which it can be rectified. Internally in Canada I do not know that there is anything that can control government misuse of Farm Credit Corporation's abilities.
The official opposition also brought forward an amendment that would have limited FCC's ability to provide equity financing only to businesses whose majority owners were primary producers. The amendment would have helped ensure that the primary focus of FCC remained on farming operations.
It is disturbing that every attempt to guarantee through law that FCC remain focused on farmers has been rejected by the corporation and the government.
Some have expressed concern that farmers may pay higher interest rates to cover the increased risk associated with equity financing. Our amendment limiting equity financing only to businesses owned by farmers would have reduced that risk.
Others in the business world have expressed concern that the changes to the Farm Credit Corporation would allow the government to use FCC to bail out large, even multinational, agriculture businesses. Here again there is nothing to restrict the FCC from taking that kind of action.
We will have a potential return to the situation of the early 1990s when the taxpayer of Canada had to put close to $900 million into the Farm Credit Corporation to get it back on its feet. That kind of exposure without limits only serves to increase the exposure of the Canadian taxpayer who is already heavily overtaxed by the government and always on the hook for its misuse and waste of money.
Our amendment would have allowed FCC to help develop farmer driven, value added processing but would have limited its ability to lend to large agribusinesses such as grain companies.
The Farm Credit Corporation has repeatedly stated that its focus will be on small and medium sized businesses that directly help improve the financial outlook for farmers. It therefore should have had no objection to our amendment. However, the defeat of our attempts to put this stated goal into law brings into question the government's commitment to keeping FCC's lending focused on small and medium sized businesses and it gives farmers another reason for concern.
The official opposition made another attempt to keep FCC focused on farmers by bringing forward an amendment to Bill C-25 which would have limited the size of loans FCC could provide to businesses not owned by farmers.
Again, if the FCC is committed to primarily lending to farmers why would it object to the amendment? Why would the government object to the amendment if it had no intention of changing the focus of the Farm Credit Corporation without coming back to parliament?
We also brought forward two amendments at report stage that would have ensured that the Farm Credit Corporation complemented the services already provided by private financial institutions and crown corporations. Credit unions have testified before the agriculture committee that the Farm Credit Corporation has already undertaken predatory pricing actions. An example was cited from the Niagara region of Ontario.
One credit union told the committee how FCC deliberately lowered the interest rate to farmers after it learned that the rate provided by the credit union was better than the government rate. The credit union people came before our committee and their testimony is in the committee minutes. It is factual. They said it. They were not being dishonest with us. They were reporting the facts as they saw them in the business world.
This might have helped one or two farmers at the time, but what happens after the government forces credit unions out of business? Maybe in the Niagara region there is not much concern about the issue but I can tell hon. members that in many small towns in the maritimes and on the prairies it is very tenuous as to whether a town can keep a credit union or a big bank because the business volume is not there to keep them going.
The Farm Credit Corporation is expanding and taking predatory action that could cause small towns to lose their banks or credit unions. That would be devastating to many towns and communities.
The original wording of Bill C-25 would have formalized the Farm Credit Corporation's ability to own and lease land. The Farm Credit Corporation has stated that this is not the intent of the amendment. It claims that the leasing provisions are for equipment but this was not made clear in the legislation.
We brought forward amendments at the committee and report stages of the bill that would have corrected the problem. It is not appropriate for the federal government to be an owner of Canadian farmland. Allowing the Farm Credit Corporation to permanently hold and lease land could result in Canadian government holdings influencing the market value of farmland.
Allowing FCC to permanently hold and lease land would also have provided the corporation an incentive not to pursue every possible means to allow farmers experiencing financial difficulty to stay on the land. In short, the bill could provide FCC an incentive to prematurely foreclose on Canadian farmland.
Even under the current legislation, the FCC has significant land holding ability. In the year 2000, the FCC owned over 360,000 acres. Ninety-five per cent of that land was in Saskatchewan, the province hardest hit by the farm income crisis.
I am pleased that the government has agreed to the amendment to restrict the amount of time the Farm Credit Corporation can hold on to land acquired as a result of foreclosures and other means. Under the amendment, such land would be disposed of within five years of acquisition.
If the farming community and everyone else could rely on the good intentions of government, we would probably not have problems with a lot of the bills but governments over the years have often demonstrated changes of attitude to the good intentions they have brought out in legislation and promised in elections. That is why legislation must be framed and drafted so that it is clear what the government intends to do, in this case with the extension of credit primarily in the area of agriculture and agribusiness.
It is strange that the corporation and the government did not agree to defining primary producer and setting limits to ensure that the focus remains on the primary producer. That is what we are asking for in the bill. We did not get it, and that is why we are opposing the bill. I guess in the end we must rely on the good graces and good conduct of the federal government and hope it does not misuse the lending authority of the Farm Credit Corporation.