Mr. Speaker, it is a real pleasure to be here before a full House tonight and hope I get a resounding applause after my speech, especially from this side. I can think of nothing better to do this evening than to come here and talk about the Canadian Wheat Board.
This past weekend I spent some time in Saskatchewan and while there I had a chance to speak with some people in the farming community. One major concern they have is what would happen to grain transportation if the Wheat Board loses its single desk. Currently, the Wheat Board books about half of the CN and CP Rail cars and gets the best price for farmers. It takes care of all producer car shippers on behalf of farmers.
When the farmers deliver board authorized grain to the elevator, they receive the initial CWB announced prices immediately. Without the Wheat Board the major grain companies would be in control, not the farmers. A restructured Canadian Wheat Board would have to own its own elevator and port facilities to be able to compete with the Cargills and the other multinationals.
If we look at food security, if we look at the future of a small farm, we see that it is the future of agriculture in Canada that is at stake here with this debate. The Wheat Board for example would not have the capital to buy elevators or build new facilities according to the report by Murray Fulton. Clearly, a Wheat Board without single desk powers would mean that farmers would be left at the mercy of the large multinational grain companies and the railways. This is the theme that threads itself through this debate.
In addition to this policy, if the Wheat Board is not able to market and coordinate movement of grain, this places another burden on farmers. As independent inland terminals fall by the wayside, farmers will wind up spending more time on the road hauling grain over longer distances. As we move into the future, it is important for the government to realize that it needs to play a role in ensuring efficient, affordable rail transportation in our country. This means preserving secondary railway lines and helping small independent grain terminals and cooperatives to survive. This helps to strengthen our rural communities.
Another concern expressed to me this past weekend by a young farmer is that of the problems of an open market. If we look at pulse crops, currently roughly 15% of producers are able to hit that top one-third of the market; 60% of farmers get under 50% of the market. There is constant negotiation and this takes up valuable time as the market goes up and down. According to this farmer, he would have liked to have pulse crops included in the Wheat Board's single desk where prices are pooled and premiums are extracted.
Another farmer mentioned that his son spends a great deal of time on the phone trying to negotiate prices for non-board crops. According to him, most farmers prefer to deal with the Wheat Board which negotiates premium prices on their behalf and currently Canadian farmers grow quality wheat. With the loss of single desk, one farmer mentioned to me that there would be a shift to lower quality wheat with high yields. This would however put our farmers in direct competition with American soft wheat resulting in what? In lower prices.
Another interesting point I learned is that the majority of cattle ranchers are in favour of the Wheat Board due to favourable prices for feed barley. So we see that it is not just a question that concerns someone producing barley or wheat. It concerns agriculture and by concerning agriculture, it concerns the future of our country and our food security.
As we begin to analyze the benefits of a Canadian Wheat Board single desk, we begin to see why a vast majority of farmers want to retain the Wheat Board as it currently is. I would like to re-emphasize again and again that there either is an open market or there is not an open market. A restructured Wheat Board without single desk and without assets will not survive. Let us not forget that in Manitoba, where there was a clear cut question, 61.8% of farmers voted to retain the single desk for barley while 69.5% of farmers said yes to single desk for wheat.
That brings us now to the plebiscite. Today we had the results of the barley plebiscite and once again we have this debate about whether the questions were legitimate or not. I would like to submit that the questions were misleading. It was another step in what I call a step by step destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board as we know it today.
The three questions were repeated on a number of occasions as if to somehow give legitimacy to the questions on the plebiscite. I would like to submit that question number two really was not valid. If we look at the way the questions were worded, we would see that the first and third questions were in the third person, whereas the second one began with “I would like”, which was obviously researched. Questions are not asked in this manner without having done some research into how people might answer.
Question number two gives hope. It gives hope to farmers that somehow they can survive, sell to an open market, and still retain the Wheat Board. This is a false hope because that is not the case according to the research. It is not the case according to the sham task force that said either it is an open market or it is not an open market. That is the key.
Opponents of the Wheat Board are constantly talking about freedom of choice and the idea that each farmer should be able to decide how he or she wishes to market grain. On the surface, this appears logical. However, if placed in the context of grain production in western Canada, this idea starts to lose its validity.
In other words, the debate is this. Should a small minority have the right to destroy the future of the majority? For example, should a farmer who lives close to the border with all the latest technology and may in the short term obtain good prices in the U.S. market be allowed to destroy a system that works well for most farmers, like the folks I talked to last weekend in Saskatchewan and especially those who do not live close to the American border?
In fact, one of the main things that separates us from our U.S. friends is the notion of the collective good in Canada. In our history we have made decisions that are based on what is the right of the majority, whether it be medicare, publicly funded universities or in this case the Canadian Wheat Board.
Having said that, it is important to note that our Canadian way of life is indeed under attack from market forces with the support of the so-called new government. I believe that if we were to step back and observe how the universe is unfolding, we would see a very disturbing pattern.
The Canadian Wheat Board is just one player in a vast international market. There is enormous pressure from U.S.-based multinational corporations and the WTO for Canada to keep dismantling its social welfare system. Multinational corporations would love to open private hospitals in Canada and have access to billion-dollar profits. And it is no secret that the United States has tried several times to get the WTO to pressure Canada to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board's single desk. They have not yet succeeded. Now our new government is doing it for them. We would like to know who is giving our Prime Minister his orders. Certainly not the Canadian people.
Is dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board a sacrifice? Is the government doing it to show the WTO that we are complying with their demands even though, for now, we are not changing anything about supply management? Let us be clear: supply management will be the next to go after our Canadian Wheat Board.
On March 22 the WTO issued a statement that Canada should dismantle significant trade barriers it uses to protect wheat, dairy and other agricultural producers. The WTO is not happy with government support for Canadian agriculture. We, therefore, as a nation must resist this pressure.
In this debate we often overlook the ramification of decisions made in our communities and in the long term. Our federal government should be doing everything that is humanly possible to ensure the survival of our rural communities and family farms. Handing over grain marketing to large multinationals does not do this.
What about the port of Churchill? As one Manitoba farmer wrote to my colleague from Winnipeg North: “In the much discussed future of the Canadian Wheat Board, there has been very little mention of the implications for the future of the port of Churchill. The bulk of freight shipped on the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill is grain by the CWB. I trust that as a Manitoba MP, you are considering how the loss of that traffic would affect the province's economy. It is virtually impossible to think that the major grain companies, with terminals at Thunder Bay and the west coast, would ship grain through Churchill. A quick look at the map shows the relative distances from points in Manitoba to ocean ports. Churchill is much closer than Vancouver, Prince Rupert or Baie Comeau”.
Those are the words of a farmer from Manitoba.
There is probably no need to repeat all the steps the current Minister of Agriculture has taken as he continues to drive nails into the coffin of the Canadian Wheat Board. These issues have been raised by farmers, by groups that represent them, by parliamentarians here in the House and by the press. Unfortunately, a lot of the government backbenchers have not raised the issue, except for one courageous member of Parliament from Manitoba.
Suffice it to say that over the past few months there has been a systematic attempt undertaken by the Prime Minister and his Minister of Agriculture to destroy the Canadian Wheat Board.
The questions could have been handled differently, in a truly democratic fashion.
Instead of striking a sham task force, the minister could have worked with the Canadian Wheat Board's board of directors and all farm organizations of all persuasions to look at the future of the Canadian Wheat Board. There really has not been an in depth socio-economic study undertaken by the government to deal with the long term losses of the single desk. In spite of the fact that there are over 200 policy analysts in the Department of Agriculture itself, we have no idea what the long term ramifications will be. We play off one study against another study and we look at short term gain. But, then, is that not what politics is all about? We look at short term gain for the election. I think it is wrong. It is not morally right.
This should have been a priority. Instead, we are changing the future of agriculture in Canada because of an ideology that states that the market must dictate all decisions and that has convinced some farmers the short term gains are worth it. I guess, ultimately, history will be the judge of policies that are made today and I fear that it will not be favourable for Canada, the Canada as we have come to know it.
The governing party's spokesman, the current parliamentary secretary for agriculture, has made a lot of statements against the Canadian Wheat Board not only this year but in years past.
For example, on May 2, 2003 he blamed the Wheat Board for American trade actions. In fact, the Wheat Board has consistently been found to be a fair trader and it has won every legal case mounted against it by the Americans, who want to destroy the power of the single desk.
On June 14, 2002 he claimed that the Wheat Board is a bad deal economically for farmers, but several independent and peer reviewed studies prove that the Wheat Board marketing actually earns a premium for farmers, unlike the non-peer reviewed, non-independent and sometimes discredited studies the government likes to quote from.
The disturbing fact is that if there is even a small grain of truth in their statements, that should trigger a study, it should trigger an economic analysis so that we look at things in the long range and not at what is going to happen today or tomorrow.
During the debate on March 2 we heard irresponsible allegations that farmers do not trust the Wheat Board and that for years they have asked for information but the Wheat Board has not been required to provide it. In fact, farmers do have access to information through the directors they democratically elect and in whom they have placed their trust to use the marketing information, to act on behalf of their best interests and in such a way as to not give away sensitive information to their competitors. Again, the parliamentary secretary was making wild accusations without foundation.
The government is running its campaign against the Wheat Board because it feels it has only one choice to whom it must sell. The truth is that the Wheat Board is the agent through which western grain is sold on behalf of farmers to over 70 countries worldwide. Some small choice.
If the Wheat Board is competing against Cargill and ADM, it will no longer be in the Wheat Board's best interest to do market development as it does now. These competitors will be the ones to capture the values that, with farmers' money, the Wheat Board has created.
Returning to the plebiscite, if barley goes on an open market and there is a choice, we know when there is an open market if prices are high, farmers will choose to deal directly and if prices are low they will go to the Wheat Board, but just having been given that option means that the clout the Wheat Board has to gain the markets internationally will be lost as we continue to go along that path.
In the real world of economics, competition among sellers does not drive prices up. Competition among sellers drives prices down. When a number of sellers have the exact same product to sell, it is only common sense that the lowest bidder will make the sale.
Multinationals have a mandate to produce profits for their shareholders. The Wheat Board has a legitimate mandate to act in farmers' best interests and return all the profit minus expenses to them. That is the difference.
If the Wheat Board fails to do right by farmers, the farmers have the democratic means at their disposal to dismantle the Wheat Board. Farmers know that and many of them chose question two because they were told by the government that the Wheat Board could stay and continue in its present form. In fact studies have shown that it will not. There either will be a Wheat Board or there will not be a Wheat Board.
If the minister and the government were doing the right thing, they would not have taken the approach they have taken. They would not have to hijack the Wheat Board's communications and printed material to reflect the Conservative Party's election promise. They would not have to put a gag order on the Wheat Board and then proceed to promote their own agenda using government sources. They would not have to remove appointed directors and a respected CEO and replace them with cronies whose main qualifications are that they support the government but not what is in the best interests of farmers. They would not have to make last minute changes to the Canadian Wheat Board election voters list to try to get an edge and then make the outrageous claim that the Wheat Board supports this change, even though consultation never occurred.
I was sitting at a farmer's breakfast table last weekend. He asked, “What will we do? My neighbour has four different ballots and now they are phoning to see whose ballot he would like to have counted”. It is confusion. Something is not right. Something did not quite work.
If what the government was doing were right, it would not have used the slippery statistics such as it has in overstating the changes in Canadian oat acreage after it was removed from CWB jurisdiction in 1989. Oat prices dropped from Wheat Board prices of $140.90 a tonne in June of that year to $67.02 on the new private market by September. By February 1991 oats had dropped to $51.34 a tonne. This disaster played out right across the Prairies. It was seven years after a radical decline in oat acreage and other international factors before prices recovered to something like what the Wheat Board has got for farmers.
Today the value of oats is only $185.12, not much different from the 1989 CWB prices, but freight rates are up by 432% since that time and largely, the export dollars are going to private trade and not to farmers. That is not much to crow about for the government when it comes to oats.
With the CWB pushing barley sales, our European and Australian competitors will take many of our export customers, just as they did with oats. Europeans are still subsidized and the Aussies do not have to deliver their grain over the Rocky Mountains so their delivery costs are lower.
Why does the government ignore, for example, the lessons of the BSE crisis? It taught us the hard way that when two or three big companies are controlling the market and farmers have no choice but to deal with them on their own, it is farmers who get hurt.
If the Wheat Board is allowed to continue on its current path, for sure no farmers will get hurt. However, if the government ultimately succeeds in its efforts to strip the single desk from farmers, many will surely be destroyed as the law of the jungle takes hold.