Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. It is obviously a debate that provokes a great deal of emotion, and I suppose that is understandable.
The grain industry in western Canada has always been a source of considerable controversy. That is because it is a multi-billion dollar industry. It has huge importance to the livelihoods and way of life of many prairie families.
Its structure is also significant, with tens of thousands of individual farmers on one side, most of them in family farm operations, and then a few large corporations on the other side, namely the railways and grain companies--many of them foreign-controlled--that run the grain handling and transportation system.
It is an inherently uneven playing field, and farmers, sadly, are positioned to get the short end of the stick. Down through the years, various attempts have been made by producers, communities, farm organizations, governments and others to correct or at least to try to offset that imbalance. The strongest effort, and certainly the most successful, has come through the Canadian Wheat Board.
After a number of dubious experiences with previous open markets and many failed experiments with voluntary pooling over the years, the Wheat Board was first created--by a Conservative government, incidentally--in 1935. It was given many of its essential single desk characteristics by a Liberal government in 1943.
It is interesting to note that for several decades after 1943, the board's existence was actually considered to be temporary, and it had to have its powers renewed by Parliament by a vote in this House every few years.
They were, of course, renewed year after year, decade after decade, because those powers exercised by the Canadian Wheat Board had proven to be effective. Farmers over those years effectively wanted and supported the board. Successive federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, acted on the farmers' opinion that the Canadian Wheat Board's mandate should be renewed.
The last major revision of the Wheat Board's structure came in 1997. As the minister at that time, I knew our government had four primary objectives in the legislation that it introduced in 1997. That legislation came into effect on January 1, 1998.
The first objective was to make the Canadian Wheat Board a truly producer-controlled operation. It is, as a result of that legislation, no longer a crown corporation. It is not a government entity run by five hand-picked servants of the government beholden only to the government. Instead it is a modern marketing organization controlled and operated by farmers themselves. That was the first objective of that legislation 13 years ago.
Second, we needed to make that producer control legitimate and accountable by making the Canadian Wheat Board fully democratic. Farmers themselves now elect the overwhelming majority of the board of directors of the Canadian Wheat Board, which is an innovation that has existed in the law only since 1998. Farmers elect 10 of the 15 directors on the Canadian Wheat Board. Obviously, if the farmers do not like what those directors do, they can be voted out of office. The elections occur every two years on a rotating basis.
It is interesting to note that down through the years since 1998, 80% of the farmers elected, re-elected and then re-elected, in some cases, by their peers to serve on the Canadian Wheat Board's board of directors have been strong supporters of the single desk system. That is like a referendum that happens every two years, and the single desk side in that vote wins 80% of the time.
That was the second objective: to make the Canadian Wheat Board not only producer-controlled, but democratic in its operations.
Third, these directors were given the scope, the mandate and the power to innovate, to change, to be flexible, to provide prairie producers with an unprecedented range of options and alternatives in how grain is marketed and how farmers are paid for their grain, and the board has delivered on that mandate over the last number of years by introducing a number of groundbreaking innovations in the board's operations.
As this debate has raged over the last number of weeks and months, I have heard a number of farmers make the point that in many ways the criticisms we hear these days about the board's operations are really about the old board, the way it used to exist before 1998, before democratic producer control took over. That old board was gone more than a decade ago. Since then, there has obviously been a dramatic improvement.
Principle number one was producer control. Principle number two was democratic operations. Principle number three was flexibility, innovation and accountability. Principle number four was this: for the future, we built into the law a clear provision to put the ultimate fate of the Canadian Wheat Board in the hands of farmers themselves.
Section 47.1 of the existing act does not prohibit changes to the single desk. It does not prohibit even the elimination of the single desk. However, it makes it clear that the decision is one for farmers to take. It is not for politicians or bureaucrats, but for farmers themselves. Section 47.1 embeds in the law the principle that there ought to be a plebiscite, a vote, held among prairie farmers to determine whether or not the nature of the single desk ought to be changed.
Before legislation like Bill C-18 can be legally introduced in this House, the government is obliged to consult with the Canadian Wheat Board's board of directors, and it is obliged to hold a vote among farmers on the specific changes it is proposing to make.
No such vote has been held by the government prior to introducing Bill C-18.
The minister says he is not obliged to have a vote because he is not making any kind of technical change to the single desk. He is not making small modifications to the way the single desk operates. He says that if he were making changes of that kind, then in fact he would be obliged to come to farmers through a vote or a plebiscite to get the farmers' opinions on what he is proposing to do.
The minister says that he is not obliged to do that in this case because he is not making smaller technical changes to the single desk: he is simply abolishing it altogether.
Let us think about that logic. It is like the doctor saying, as the patient being wheeled into surgery, “Well, if I am just going to take out your tonsils, I will do you the courtesy of asking for your opinions, but if what I have in mind is euthanasia, killing you altogether, I will not bother to ask for your advice”.
Obviously the government's position is ludicrous on that point. The legislation has the effect of destroying the single desk, and accordingly section 47.1 obliges the government to get the opinion of farmers before they take that step. The government has not done so, and therefore, in our opinion, this legislation is not proceeding properly at this time.
Liberals in Parliament will not support this legislation, Bill C-18, to kill the single desk marketing system for the Canadian Wheat Board for at least four strong reasons.
The first one has to do with process. The CWB is now democratically controlled and operated by western Canadian grain producers. Today's legislation eliminates that democratic producer control, and it replaces it with direct and complete government control. The elected producer directors will be gone, and instead the board will be run only by five people appointed by the government.
The Conservatives are also disenfranchising farmers by ignoring their legal obligation as it exists today to hold a producer plebiscite before introducing any legislation that has the effect of destroying the single desk. That is our first reason for opposing this legislation: the attack on democracy, the attack on proper process, the ignoring of the right of farmers to vote.
Our second reason is one of cost. By killing the single desk operation, the government is effectively reducing the value of Canadian wheat and barley in global markets by as much as $400 million to $600 million per year. That is the typical price premium that the Canadian Wheat Board is able to gain every year for western farmers and bring into the Canadian economy because of its ability to price discriminate.
The ability to price discriminate depends exclusively upon the existence of the single desk operation. If we have a single desk operation, we can go to each individual grain market in the world and extract the highest price available in that market. Obviously, the higher priced markets in Europe such as the high scale department stores and food stores in London, England, will pay a higher price than will Yap Milling in Indonesia. They are two entirely different markets. If we have a single desk operation, we can distinguish between those markets. We can get the top price in London and the top price in Indonesia and they are not the same price.
If there is leakage everywhere because there is no single desk operation, we will then be competing for the bottom price. It would be a race for the bottom price. We will end up with the lowest price rather than the top price available in each individual market.
Without the single desk operation we will lose the ability to price discriminate. According to many experts in the industry, the cost of that will be roughly $400 billion to $600 billion a year depending on the marketing year. Without the single desk operation, the ability and the clout to price discriminate will be gone.
The third reason is that the government's new legislation will also reduce farmers' clout here at home.
There will be a lot of collateral damage with the loss of the Wheat Board. For example, the producers' right to load their own rail cars as a safety valve against commercial exploitation will technically remain in the wording of the Canada Grain Act. However, without the Canadian Wheat Board to give producer car shipments logistical priority that right will be largely meaningless.
I note that the report the government commissioned on so-called marketing freedom which was published a few weeks ago clearly makes the point that the right to access producer cars, not actually the effective functioning of producer cars but just the access to producer cars, will continue in the Canada Grain Act. However, that report specifically states they would not be given any priority in the system. Therefore, we can order our producer car and we might get it three years from now if there happens to be nothing else happening at the time. It is a right without any meaningful application unless we have someone who is managing the logistics of the system and will give the producer car some priority.
Similarly, producer-owned grain terminals and short-line rail operations will be at the mercy of large grain companies and the railways. The grain companies and the railways have always opposed the existence of the producer-owned grain terminals and short-line rail operations because it means that grain goes around their system, it provides competition and they do not get the tariffs and the fees. Obviously, they are not going to be conducive to allowing those innovations to continue to be used in the system.
What is most important in terms of collateral damage is there will be no player in the western grain handling and transportation system with the clout and the will to stand up for farmers and to take on entities like the railways when their services fail, which happens about 50% of the time according to the government's own rail service review, or when the railways attempt to extract excessive freight rates.
That is the third reason why we cannot support the legislation.
Finally, the Conservative government is about to hand to the United States a huge trade freebie.
The elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board has been the Americans' number one trade objective in North America for the past 20 to 25 years. Courtesy of the Conservative government, the U.S. is about to receive its fondest wish and Canada will get absolutely nothing in return.
The Canadian Wheat Board's single desk system as well as its clout and ability to outdo the American grain marketing system will be gone but Canada will have no better access to the U.S. market. Country of origin labelling discrimination against Canada will continue. The buy America trade discrimination against Canada will continue. The new U.S. marine tax discrimination against Canada will go on. Border thickening will continue. U.S. discrimination against Canadians working in the defence industry will continue. The U.S. attack on Canadian softwood lumber will continue. U.S. authorities will continue to close the border to Canadian wheat and other products whenever it suits them. Thus, Canada has gained absolutely nothing from its unilateral disarmament in the grain trade.
I reiterate that there will be a failure to apply due process and recognize the producer democratic control of the Canadian Wheat Board. There will be an imposition of new costs on farmers and a loss of value to the tune of $400 million to $600 million a year in terms of price premiums left on the table and not captured for western Canadian producers. As well, there will be a loss of clout in terms of dealing with other aspects of the grain handling and transportation system, especially regarding the ability to take on the railways when necessary.
I would note on that last point, that on at least two occasions in the last few years the Canadian Wheat Board has taken the railways to the Canadian Transportation Agency. As a result of those proceedings, it won the farmers something in the order of $200 million in excess freight charges. That was money that was taken out of farmers' pockets. The Wheat Board put that money back into farmers' pockets. The bill will remove that authority, that ability and that clout.
This is a unilateral disarmament of the Canadian farmer. The Americans are giving up absolutely nothing and will not even guarantee absolute access to the U.S. grain market. However, the Canadian Wheat Board, a pillar of the system in Canada, will be gone.
For all of those reasons we oppose the bill.
We propose an amendment to the motion that is presently before the House.
That the amendment be amended by adding after the words "70 years" the following:
“, including specifically the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board's role in managing transportation logistics and thereby leaving farmers without an effective voice with respect to rail service levels and freight rates; and (d) breaches section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act”.