Mr. Speaker, I am indeed pleased to speak on Bill C-11. As others have stated, there is a lot in this bill that makes sense. In fact, it is the third time in the House for most of the contents of this bill. However, tucked within the bill is another huge loss, and this is new, a huge loss for the farm community.
The minority government opposite has taken to inserting in a lot of its press releases and so on, when it can, a quote called “the new government”, but like so much of what this minority Conservative Party does, it is all about deception. There is nothing new in the bill except the one section that I mentioned, clause 43. What this does, quite simply, is trample on the rights of farmers. Let me repeat that: clause 43 tramples on the rights of farmers.
The new government, the new Conservative government, has cut a deal with the big railways and the big grain companies to tear down agreements that the previous government had entered into, agreements reached by the previous government that would have given a little bit of leverage to the grain producers and more control over their destiny as grain producers in terms of dealing with the railways. The issue really relates to the transfer of hopper cars to the Farmer Rail Car Coalition, a cross-section of groups across the west that would have had those railcars turned over to them to manage in the interests of the transportation system and in the interests of farmers.
The provisions of this bill, then, particularly clause 43, are really symbolic of the government's real priorities. With the implementation of these two provisions, the Conservative government has, along with its decision on May 4, sold out the farmers of western Canada and delivered an asset of incredible value, once again, to the railways.
The two provisions in question come out of the government's betrayal of western farmers and a reneging on an agreement signed in good faith between the Farmer Rail Car Coalition and the Government of Canada. The agreement signed between the FRCC and the federal government in November 2005 would have seen the federal government hopper car fleet transferred to the Farmer Rail Car Coalition. The FRCC was committed to a payment of $203 million for the cars and had ensured that the maintaining of the fleet could and would be done at a competitive rate far less than the unaccounted-for costs of the railways.
The third report of the Standing Committee on Transport, on February 14, 2005, provided one of the key reasons why there had been a lengthy delay between the announcement by the previous federal government to dispose of the hopper car fleet in 1996 and the agreement with the FRCC in November 2005. It stated that “the railways had a right of first refusal to acquire the cars that did not expire until the summer of 2002”.
No action was possible until that arrangement lapsed. It was in a matter of months following that period that the federal government, in spite of less than enthusiastic support from within Transport Canada and continued railway opposition, had taken the final decision.
When it comes to Transport Canada, I have had the opportunity, in a previous life as President of the National Farmers Union, to deal with Transport Canada for some 30 years. Transport Canada has never failed in this country's history, in those 30 years at least, but to come down on the side of the railways as opposed to coming down on the side of the farmers. The previous minister of transport was willing to challenge Transport Canada and come up with a deal that worked for primary producers. The Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities over here in the so-called new government is selling out those primary producers and catering to big rail in the process.
That is not what we expect from a new government. We expect a new government to stand up for those with less power in this country. This new government in that regard has failed miserably and has really betrayed the farm community in terms of that deal that was signed by the previous government.
Before getting into the specifics of the issue, I would like to speak about accountability, something the government pretends is of importance. The railways, since the issue of the possible transfer of the hopper car fleet, have maintained one consistent position: complete and total opposition to any transfer or sale of the cars to the FRCC. Yet, the railways have never once, even to the Canadian Transportation Agency according to testimony before the agriculture committee, provided their costs for maintaining the hopper car fleet which had been in their control since the 1970s.
For the benefit of those who are not knowledgeable about this issue to a great extent, I want people to understand that the past federal government purchased hopper cars for the railways which the Government of Canada owned and controlled to a certain extent to provide the rolling stock in order to provide the capacity to move the grain out of the western prairie region because the railways were not providing the rolling stock in fact to do it. That is why it was necessary. It is the cars we are really talking about in this particular instance. As I said, the railways really did not provide the costs of maintaining that hopper car fleet which had been in their control since the 1970s.
A Canadian Transportation Agency representative at the agriculture committee stated that even though the CTA made serious efforts to work with the railways, the agency found that “--the railways do not collect detailed information with respect to the maintenance of the hopper cars, which made the assignment or study more difficult--”. That was said at the agriculture committee on May 16, 2006.
The members of the new government, specifically those from rural western Canada, have failed to protect the interests of their constituents. At a minimum, they should be able to stand in the House and state that the decision of the government to renege on the deal with the FRCC is supported by one set of simple facts: namely, that the railways can maintain the fleet of hopper cars at a rate which matches that of the FRCC. They have not and they cannot do that.
On May 4 the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities stated that the government's decision would allegedly benefit the farmers of western Canada due to the $2 per tonne rate reduction. The news release of course issued by the minister indicated that the rate reduction of $2 per tonne was a potential target. Really then, the $2 per tonne is not real. It is just potential. It may happen. There is no assurance to the western farm community that this reduction will in fact be made.
In an interview, however, with The Western Producer on May 11, the same Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities stated that “the reduction in rates would likely fall in the $1.50 to $2 range”. So even the minister himself is not consistent in terms of what he is saying the potential reduction might be.
The claim by the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities that farmers would realize an annual saving of $50 million is contradicted by his own news release and by his own statement to The Western Producer, but it is not unusual for the new government to be caught in contradictions. We have seen this from members in question period today. We see it every day. In fact, there is no industry which sees the contradictions as often as the agricultural industry.
During the election the Conservative leader left the impression that there was going to be immediate cash for farmers. Remember that last January and last spring? Did they get immediate cash for farmers? The Minister of Human Resources and Social Development says there was. There were moneys announced last November by the previous government and that is what is being paid out. There was less money in the budget than the previous government had paid out. There was no immediate cash for farmers from the government to this day other than what was announced by the previous government.
The minister may be talking about the options program but the options program is a blame the victim kind of program. Instead of compensating producers for low farm prices, Conservatives have come up with an options program for a farmer who has farmed for 40 years. Maybe HRDC is providing the skills development training program for farmers and they thought it was Agriculture Canada, but I can certainly see the bureaucrats of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada training a farmer who has farmed for 40 years to farm better. I can certainly see that because what the government is doing on the options program is blaming the victim. It is saying the farmer is losing money because his skills are poor. That is what the government is really saying.
May I remind the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development that the problem the farm community has is low commodity prices worldwide which are caused by subsidies by other countries around the world. Low commodity prices are what is wrong.
Just to sidetrack for a minute, the Minister of International Trade and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food had the opportunity to be in Australia today to meet with the Cairns Group, the group that Canada was an original founding member of, at which meeting the United States and the European Union were going to argue the point that we need a WTO agreement in which there would be better market access and reduced export subsidies and to argue the points that would benefit Canadian farmers. Where were these two ministers? Sitting in the House here today and neglecting their responsibility to the farm community of this country.
When it comes to agriculture, I could go through a list of six items, but I want to deal specifically with Bill C-11. The fact is the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the new government as a whole have failed miserably when it comes to dealing with the problems in the farm community.
The claim by the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities that farmers will realize an annual saving of $50 million is contradicted by his own news release. This means that the Government of Canada cannot stand by the figure it initially proclaimed as going to farmers in terms of a rate reduction and for this reason alone, these provisions of the bill do not merit support.
However, the FRCC has been more than forthcoming with respect to its position with respect to the costs of maintaining the fleet for producers, and this position has been supported by the findings of the CTA in a submission to Transport Canada on March 29, 2005. That document makes absolutely clear that the two major railways, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, have been actively and intentionally overcharging, in other words gouging, farmers for more than a decade, and the government continues to support that gouging.