Mr. Speaker, as I indicated a moment ago, I am somewhat discouraged to speak at second reading of this bill. I say discouraged because Bill C-13, in the second session of the 40th Parliament, is exactly the same bill with exactly the same extensive flaws and shortcomings that were contained in the old Bill C-39 introduced in the 39th Parliament, originally on December 13, 2007.
I would refer government members, and especially the minister and his bureaucrats at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, to the Hansards of February 1, 2008 and February 15, 2008 where extensive concerns about this bill were outlined in this House at that time.
Where have the minister, the bureaucrats at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and those at the Canadian Grain Commission been for the last year? This bill could have come in this House substantially improved. We could have started at a higher level. However, this bill is coming in with the same old flaws that were in it previously. Very prominent in those concerns was the fact that the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food's report on the Canadian Grain Commission was all but ignored.
The chair of the committee at that time, who signed off on that report, was the very minister who now puts forward this flawed bill. One would think the Minister of Agriculture would have more respect for his own signature than to sign a report making certain recommendations and then ignoring those recommendations when he has the authority as a minister to put forward the bill.
However, we all know that the Minister of Agriculture, when it comes to listening to farmers, is about as stone deaf as one can get. Even so, one would think that at least the department or the Canadian Grain Commission would have addressed some of those concerns.
We also know that the person who happens to be chief commissioner at the Canadian Grain Commission is a friend of the minister. In fact, I would wonder if that friend is more interested in protecting the minister's desires and programs than he is of protecting the very producers who he is supposed to represent.
In my question to the parliamentary secretary a moment ago, I outlined that there was absolutely no cost benefit analysis done in terms of this proposal on changes to the Canadian Grain Commission by the government. Now that is not unusual for the government. We know it did not do a cost benefit analysis when it exercised its attack on the Canadian Wheat Board.
Finally, the Parliament of Canada shut the Prime Minister and the minister down in terms of what they wanted to do in undermining the Wheat Board. Even the court system had to come in a couple of times and shut the Prime Minister down in terms of his undermining of the Canadian Wheat Board.
The government has a history of trying to undermine the very institutions that protect farmers in western Canadian, the Canadian Wheat Board and the Canadian Grain Commission. The Canadian Grain Commission does have protective measures for grain producers right across the country.
I would like to take the opportunity to put one thing that I probably should put on the record in terms of the way the minister has used his position to attack institutions that in fact protect farmers in this country.
I will quote an article from the Melfort Journal on February 24. The minister stood in this House and attacked the contingency fund losses of the Canadian Wheat Board, which was the wrong thing to do. In fact, that hurt grain producers commercially.
The quote from the Melfort Journal says:
Last year, the CWB registered $7.2 billion in returns for western producers, a year which saw nearly a 50% increase in wheat revenues and nearly a 100% increase in barley and durum revenues from the previous year.
Simply put, the board outperformed its international competitors, an outstanding performance that should be recognized even by the board's most strident critics...and you sure shouldn't expect any government minister to misuse their offices and authority by telling a small portion of the story to advance their political agenda. This is an issue that goes well beyond whether you support the board or not.
I make that point because it is extremely important for Canadians to understand that the minister and the government know no low when it comes to attacking the various institutions that are there to protect the farmer community, because they clearly favour ensuring that greater benefits, greater authority or greater power accrues to the industry side of the equation, mainly the grain companies and the railways.
I was in Alberta on the weekend, at a great event in Edmonton that our party was doing. I could not help but think, when I was talking to producers there and looking back over the years, that when I first went west as a farm leader in the late 1970s, western Canadian farmers had a branch line and railway infrastructure that went into nearly every community. The cooperative movement was strong at that time. Shapiro, from the United States, had come up and talked about a pool system, and farmers in the west set up a pool system. They had Manitoba Pool Elevators, the Alberta Wheat Pool, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and organizations and cooperatives working for the farm community, so farmers had protection on that front as well.
All that is gone. Now we have grain corporations that are interested in their shareholders and the profits of their shareholders elsewhere in the world, and not in those primary producers in those rural communities.
The elevator system within that branch line infrastructure was fully paid for by primary producers. Yes, they were wooden elevators, but they were in every small town and they were fully paid for. There was no debt, and they were paid for by farmers. Now we have a system in which big grain and big railways are trying, almost on a daily basis, to close down branch lines and abolish service to those small communities. As a result, grain has to be trucked on the road, which taxpayers pay for at the provincial level. The steel that Canadian taxpayers paid for on those railways has been sold to the likes of Brazil and elsewhere, and at the end of the day farmers have poorer service and less service. Their branch lines have been torn up and they do not have the protection of the cooperative movement they once had.
The only protections farmers have any more in western Canada are, one, the Canadian Wheat Board, which the Prime Minister has tried everything to undermine and undercut, and two, the Canadian Grain Commission, which this bill is all about. Through this bill the government is trying to weaken many of the protections within the bill itself.
Looking at the bill itself tells much about the attitude of the government. In the 2008-09 report on plans and priorities, the Canadian Grain Commission outlines its mandate. The Canadian Grain Commission administers the provision to the Canada Grain Act. The Canadian Grain Commission's mandate, as set out in the act, is to:
...in the interests of the grain producers, establish and maintain standards of quality for Canadian grain and regulate grain handling in Canada, to ensure a dependable commodity for domestic and export markets.
The reference to the interests of primary producers is what is done away with in this particular bill. In fact, the mandate changes to say that it is more in the interests of industry than it is in those of primary producers. Again, I think that goes to my original point and my earlier question to the parliamentary secretary, which was that the government has a record of failure when it comes to the farm community. It is even extending it into this bill by making the point that it is taking away primary producers as the main interest of the mandate.
The president of the National Farmers Union, Stewart Wells, made a few key points that I want to put on the record in terms of what this bill would do to the farm community. He says in his correspondence, “The amendments will remove the requirement that the CGC operate as a public interest watchdog that regulates the overall grain industry 'in the interests of producers'. If this bill passes, the grain industry would become virtually self-regulating, and the CGC's role will be reduced to being a passive 'service provider' that provides grading, weighing and inspection services to grain companies on a fee-for-service basis. Farmers' protections will be reduced to a minimal level, while the legislation leaves the door open for companies to be able to circumvent those limited protections”.
He goes on to say:
Canadian farmers have not advocated any weakening of the CGC regulatory role. At a time when grain companies like Viterra, ADM and Cargill are consolidating their hold over the market, it is obvious there needs to be a mechanism in place to provide farmers with protection.
I would make the point that the Government of Canada is undermining that protection in this instance.
Mr. Wells goes on to say:
The current system allows grain inspectors to catch contaminated, off-condition or incorrectly represented carloads while they are being emptied, weighed, and elevated, and before they are mixed with large quantities of other grain. Eliminating this provision will have a negative effect on farmers’ bottom line.
The amendments also call for eliminating the provision that grain dealers post a security bond before they can be licensed by the CGC. This provision was put in place to protect farmers who would be left holding the bag if the grain company goes bankrupt. The last point Mr. Wells makes is this:
Eliminating this requirement will not save farmers any money. It will, however, greatly increase their risk.
This is the end of Mr. Wells' comments, but they are all valid. They show a weakening of farmers' protection.
The amendments weakening farmers' relative position have been part of the minister's overall record of failure. In his December 13, 2007, introduction to the Canadian Grain Commission's performance report, the minister said that he introduced Bill C-39, an Act to amend the Canadian Grain Act to Parliament. He went on to talk about how his proposed reforms were consistent with the goals expressed in the so-called Growing Forward framework.
I am worried about Growing Forward. I mentioned earlier, in my questions to the parliamentary secretary, that if Growing Forward is the example the minister is using for the government's position, then farmers are in trouble in this country. We have seen 3,600 farmers go out of business each year. We have seen the debt load of farmers go up to $54 billion, four times what it is per farm in the United States. We have seen the government cancel the cost of production program, a commitment by the Prime Minister in the 2006 election. He broke his word, violated his word, and cancelled cost of production in the estimates this time. That is part of Growing Forward.
We know that in times of declining income, AgriInvest and AgriStability in fact pay out less money than the old CAIS program that the Prime Minister hated so much.
If Growing Forward is the way and this is another example of Growing Forward, I say to the farm community, “Wake up and smell the roses”, because it is a decline. It is an undermining and a deteriorating of farmers' protective measures in this country.
As I said, farmers should be worried. Let me point out some of the flaws in this particular bill. Clearly Bill C-13 does not reflect the unanimous recommendations of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. For the minister to imply otherwise is misleading.
Why is there this contempt for the committee, and why is there this contempt by the minister for his own Conservative colleagues on that committee? His own signature was on it. Therefore, does he even undermine his own integrity?
The fifth recommendation in the committee report called for a cost-benefit analysis. No cost-benefit analysis has been done on the impact of Bill C-13 with respect to the contracting out of grain inspections called for in that report. In fact, the government response tabled to the original standing committee report said this:
The government considers that inspection and weighing services performed by CGC employees played a considerable role in enhancing the marketability and reputation of Canadian grain. With this in mind, we need to be cautious to ensure the benefits of any changes in the weighing and inspection services are greater than the costs this may impose on the system. The Government agrees that a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted to assess the advantages and costs that would be associated with contracting out these services.
In its response to the committee, the government admitted itself that a cost-benefit analysis should be done, yet no such cost-benefit analysis is provided. Why?
A good friend of the minister is now the chief commissioner of the CGC. He made a couple of points on this issue, and they worry me as well. He said that even without the legislation, the chief commissioner and the Canadian Grain Commission were moving ahead with changes. They have decided to end inspection services at prairie primary elevators this summer, close three prairie service centres and reduce staff.
The chief commissioner said, “The transition away from on-site inspection services means that the CGC will no longer provide official grading and weighing on grain shipments from the Prairies' terminal facilities, nor for export shipments to the United States or domestic mills”.
That is worrisome, because the chief commissioner, prior to the legislation coming in, is already making changes that will undermine our ability to ship the high-quality grain we have become noted for as a country.
I would close by saying this: we believe improvements can be made to the Canadian Grain Commission; however, major amendments will be required of the bill before us. We look forward to that discussion, and I plead with the government to listen to producers this time.