Mr. Chair, again, in a special way, I offer my congratulations to you. I have been in that post in the same kind of situation at many take note debates on agriculture, so I wish you well. You will do a superb job because you have the confidence of the House and the experience to make it work.
I am very pleased that the challenges facing the agricultural industry is the subject of our first take note debate here in Parliament. The fact that agriculture has been chosen as the topic of this debate is an indication of just how seriously people on this side of the House take this issue and how seriously it is being taken on all sides of the House. It is interesting that it is taken so seriously by folks on this side of the House that the very first statement made in this Parliament was about agriculture by a member from our caucus.
The very first action taken by our cabinet was to get money out the door to help producers. An ongoing priority of the government is to ensure that the people that elected us and that we stand shoulder to shoulder with are going to ensure that their priority is our priority and agriculture is finally going to get the attention it deserves in the House of Commons.
I want to begin by saying that we have more farmers and more farm interests represented in this caucus, in this cabinet, and in this government than has been the case in any government in living memory. These people here fight for farmers day in and day out. It is an honour to be included in this team of people who are going to represent farmers with aplomb over the next number of years.
As we said in the Speech from the Throne, we recognize the unique challenges faced by those who make their livelihood from our land and our natural resources, especially agriculture. We will take action to secure a prosperous future for Canadian agriculture following 13 years of neglect. For 13 years the Liberal government ignored the plight of Canada's hard-working farmers.
While the rest of the world poured billions into subsidies, the Liberals stood by and watched. While farm incomes plummeted, they folded their hands. When disaster struck, they promised money and did not deliver and when they did act, they tied up farmers in red tape and complicated rules in the CAIS program.
However, on January 23, Canadians voted for a change and that included change in agriculture. I am here to say we are going to deliver the change that farmers finally deserve today. The very first action of our cabinet was to start sending out the $755 million under the grains and oilseeds payment program. It was promised by the previous government. I have no idea why it did not send it out but it was not sent. We made it our first action.
Not only that, but we accelerated the amount of money that was going to go out, so that 90% of it would go out immediately and $400 million is already out. The rest of the money should be out over the next three weeks. In addition, during the election campaign the Conservatives promised an extra $2.5 billion investment in agriculture over the next five years to the core funding. We are going to address agricultural needs and it is going to be a priority for the government.
In the short term we are also making changes to the CAIS program. We have heard a lot of talk tonight about the CAIS program, trying to fix some of its problems so that farmers can actually benefit from the program. I have been to all 10 provinces, have had industry meetings in every province and met with all the agriculture ministers across the country. There is one consistent story that I heard from farmers, and I am not talking about the large organizations now, I am talking about farmers. One consistent story was that the CAIS program had not worked for them.
I will quote the member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands who is the parliamentary secretary now in charge of the Canadian Wheat Board who said in 2002 that “this program will not meet the needs of farmers. It's going to be a serious problem for farmers and if you go ahead with it, there will be problems from coast to coast because of the CAIS program”. Unfortunately, he hit the nail right on the head.
Farmers knew it would not work: its untimely payments; its complexity; its lack of predictability, problems obtaining credit from banks; and its incapacity to respond to long term income decline. Farmers, especially in the grains and oilseeds sector, said it just did not get the job done. It had serious problems. Farmers were frustrated with it and we are intent on changing it.
We need to have something this year to tide them over and that is why I have said that we are going to continue with the CAIS program. We have no choice. In the middle of a crop year, we have to make changes. The provinces are working with us to make changes, to make it as good a program as we can in the short term, but we are intent on replacing the CAIS program with separate programs for income support and disaster relief. It is time to break those apart and finally give farmers something they can count on and bank on that is predictable and not so complex that they have to have an accountant to fill out the forms.
Other problems that farmers are experiencing are global in nature. Canadian farmers are world class, but they are up against world class subsidies and world class tariff barriers. That is why I and the Minister of International Trade had a round table here last month just down the road. We brought in about 50 key national agri-food organizations to develop our priorities and focus on the World Trade Organization meetings which are coming up later this month and hopefully will be completed this year.
Later this month I will be travelling to Geneva with our negotiators to get those subsidies down so that our farmers, as our leader has said, can compete on a level and fair playing field.
At those negotiations, and this has been brought up a few times tonight, I want to assure members that this government will stand four-square and solidly behind our supply management system which underpins thousands of family farms in Canada. I voted to stand up for supply management in November when I was in opposition, I voted for it during the campaign, and I will defend supply management when I am in Geneva during the negotiations as well.
I want to be very clear: we will support the supply management system during the negotiations in Geneva.
However, this does not mean that others will be left out. We are committed to defending the interests of all our producers in the grains and oilseeds sector, the beef sectors, and others who are looking for a way to beat down those foreign and domestic subsidies and tariff barriers that are keeping our products out of other markets.
This take note debate is happening tonight because there is an income crisis in parts of our agricultural sector. Over the past three years, the federal and provincial governments have paid out a lot of money in agricultural support programs, but still many of our farmers are struggling to make ends meet. That is why, as I mentioned, we promised $2.5 billion more for agricultural support programs over the next five years, but we also know that simply throwing money at the problem, although it is necessary in the short term and there is more money coming, is not the long term solution.
We need to have a fresh look at everything to determine how our agricultural sector fits in to the globalized market of the 21st century. We want to create an environment that will allow our agricultural producers to make a decent living from the market and enjoy future prosperity.
One of these emerging markets is renewable fuels. It is not the only answer but it is kind of symbolic. Soon we will be rolling out our biofuel strategy and I am working with the environment minister to ensure that farmers actually benefit from our commitment to 5% biofuels. We want to ensure that when we move to biofuels we want to help the environment. We want to ensure that we have a good, reliable source of fuel, of course, but we also want to ensure that when we roll out this platform, it is something that is going to benefit farmers, not just big companies, day in and day out for years to come, with a biofuel strategy that is for them.
We will also be taking greater advantage of our science and technological capabilities, an area where Canada has a real and substantial competitive advantage over many of our global competitors. Agricultural research and technological innovation can provide our producers with many new crops and uses for their crops. The real answer in the long run of course is not government subsidies. Farmers do not want handouts. They do not want to farm the mailbox. They want and deserve to make their living for themselves, their children and their grandchildren through the market.
Governments can help farmers at one level when disaster strikes and where steep income decline occurs, but the market will help the farmers prosper. It is my ambition and the ambition of this government that all sectors of agriculture become stable, our farmers become prosperous, and they understand that this government stands in their corner as we move from where we have been, unfortunately for too long, to a prosperous, reliable farm income that they can get from the marketplace and that they deserve.
The solutions we bring forward will be market-oriented but the government will be there, hand in hand, as we make the transition from where we have been, which has not been good, to where we need to be: a diverse market where farmers can get rewarded for what they do day in and day out.
Producers are facing problems now. We have heard their concerns. We realize they have a cash income crisis. We will be there for them. We have been there for them already and they can count on the fact that this government will be in their corner here and abroad for years to come.