Mr. Speaker, first I would like to comment on the parliamentary secretary's statement about spending by the board. The board has a fiduciary duty to protect the board and the interests of wheat farmers. That is why that money was spent.
I am pleased to rise today in the debate at third reading on the Conservative government's bill that would effectively kill the Canadian Wheat Board. It is an honour because I truly believe that when putting forward legislation such as this, legislation that would not only touch the lives and livelihoods of farmers across the western provinces but would profoundly change the face of agriculture in this country, there should be fulsome debate. Sadly, the Conservative government decided in May that it would not listen to any voices but its own for the next four years. Not only do Canadian farmers who voted to keep the Canadian Wheat Board deserve better, so do Canadians across this country who understand that their bread does not come from the bakery or the grocery store but from the hard work and dedication of Canadian farmers.
Having walked away from the election with only 39% of the vote, meaning that 61% of Canadians do not support the government's measures, the Conservatives have treated their majority as an excuse to walk all over farmers who do not share their ideological beliefs. I remind the House that according to the existing Canadian Wheat Board Act, an affirmative vote of wheat farmers is required under section 47.1 before a change as significant as this is made.
Regardless of pre-election promises by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food in Minnedosa in March of this year to have a farmer vote and not act arbitrarily, the government shut out the voices of farmers by refusing to hold a farmers vote and smearing anyone who dared stand up to its ideological steamroller. In August the Canadian Wheat Board held its own farmers vote, wherein a majority of western Canadian grain producers voted to maintain the single desk under the Canadian Wheat Board. What did the government do? It is no surprise. It smeared the results. How can a government maintain that Canadian farmers know best on the one hand while refusing to actually listen to a single one?
The Conservatives limited debate, giving the House only three shortened days to speak to a bill that would fundamentally alter the face of farming and would change rural life in the prairie provinces forever. Then the government referred the bill to a special legislative committee, not the regular agriculture committee, limiting its review to only the technical elements of the bill, not to the impact on small farms and the effect that attacking the family farm will have on small town rural economies.
The legislative committee did not even travel out west to hear from farmers, despite my seeking consent in the House to do so. To add insult to injury, the committee was restricted to only two evenings of hearing witnesses, only two nights for people to testify to the detrimental impact this bill will have before the committee was restricted to one short night of clause-by-clause examination of the bill, refusing all amendments designed to put control of even the new Canadian Wheat Board into the hands of farmers. Fearing the truth, Conservatives held farmers back and silenced tens of thousands of farmers' voices, pretending to Canadians that no opposition to this bill ever existed, an all too familiar deception that characterizes the government.
What the Conservative government does not want to hear is that farmers are profoundly concerned about the clout and strength they will lose once they are no longer able to negotiate, sell or market their wheat, durum and barley through the single desk. Where is the Prime Minister who said only hours after winning his majority that he would govern for all Canadians? I do not recall him explaining that there is an exception for western grain farmers who tried to speak through their Conservative MPs but could not even get a return call or email response on the issue. They were completely ignored. What of the farmers in Ottawa right now who cannot get a meeting with Conservative senators? It is shameful.
Post-election democracy no longer exists with the government. This is more severe than the back and forth of debate in the House. It is much more than every question that the minister or his parliamentary secretary have deflected. These are farmers who have worked their whole lives on their farms, who support the Canadian Wheat Board, who are being ignored because the government does not want to hear what they have to say.
With the removal of the single desk, a great piece of armour is being removed from the farmers' arsenal. Vital infrastructure that links the marketing, sales and transportation needs of western Canadian farmers is being destroyed. In the absence of any meaningful action on the rail service review for nine months now, farmers are concerned that they will no longer have the hammer that they need to deal with the overwhelming strength and appetite for profit of big grain companies and the railway.
Western grain farmers have shared their tragic stories of the abuse they suffer at the hands of the railways. The railway companies have such a callous disregard for farmers that they will often send railway cars with holes in them without any consideration for what grain will be lost along the way. Farmers individually are up against a behemoth where their collective clout enables them recourse in the face of such poor treatment. That clout will now be gone.
Many farmers have approached me because our Competition Act is not nearly effective enough in dealing with anti-competitive behaviour. In this infrastructural vacuum, farmers will be left to struggle and die. Not only will farmers be left to fend for themselves, but even the farmers who stay with an interim wheat board will lose their voice in the organization.
This bill does not allow for any elected directors upon the coming into effect of the new law, and leaves five government-appointed directors. These directors, unaccountable to grain producers, are no more than puppets of the minister with the new sweeping powers set in place by the bill that require the board to be operated by whom? The Prime Minister's office.
My colleague on the government side, the member for Westlock—St. Paul, once wrote the following to his constituents:
Canada is a democracy and one of the underlying tenets of a democracy is that fact that citizens vote to elect their representatives, be it an MP, a mayor or a Director of the Canadian Wheat Board.
I am saddened that my friend has abandoned his commitment to democratic institutions. There is a very important truth in that statement. Members on both sides of this House have argued that farmers know what is in their own best interests. Therefore, when the western Canadian farmers elect their directors to the Wheat Board and 80% of the directors elected consistently support the single desk, one can only assume that the democratic process has been respected and the wishes of the electorate have been satisfied.
Many of the same farmers who may have helped to elect my friend the member for Westlock—St. Paul or any number of members opposite from the government party also voted to elect representatives to their Wheat Board and support the single desk.
A number of members opposite have questioned my position on behalf of prairie wheat and barley farmers in the past because I am from Ontario. Well, I will say to those members that people from Ontario and everywhere else in this country know that their food comes from farmers and not the grocery store. The Conservatives have make the false link between the single desk and western Canadian provinces and the Ontario Wheat Producers' Marketing Board. I will clear up some of the errors in their argument before they rise during the period for questions and comments.
We are entirely committed to giving western Canadian farmers the same choice as Ontario farmers. In the late 1990s, the Ontario farmer-elected board of the single desk began a transition, supported by producers, to move to an open market. Farmer-elected directors supported by Ontario farmers made this choice, not a government talking down to producers, the majority of whom voted to sustain the single desk.
There is no question that Canada produces the best grain in the world. However, there are different grades of grain, and the members opposite need to keep that in mind when they are considering this bill. Ontario production is one-tenth that of the western provinces, and produces a soft wheat, one used primarily for pastry, cookies and doughnuts. The western provinces' hard red spring wheat is used in making bread, and their durum for making pasta. Ontario mills rely on prairie wheat for flour.
Most of Ontario's wheat is sold within Canada or the northern United States, while the majority of western wheat is shipped around the world. The transportation costs for western wheat and its markets are not at all comparable, nor is the clout required to sustain the western wheat industry.
What is the bottom line? If the members opposite would like to continue making the comparison between Ontario and the western provinces, they should first allow western farmers a vote to determine their own future.
Any way we look at it, the will of western Canadian wheat, durum and barley farmers is being ignored by the government. A majority of farmers elected the farmer directors. A majority of farmers supported maintaining the single desk and a majority of farmers are furious that their Conservative MPs are muzzled by the Prime Minister's office, will not listen to their wishes or their needs and are now endangering their livelihoods.
When asked about why there will be no farmer-elected directors on the interim Canada wheat board, members at committee were informed that it was necessary for such oversight given the expenditure of taxpayer money. This, of course, raises a new concern. How much taxpayer money will be spent killing the Canadian Wheat Board? With the single desk, the Canadian Wheat Board is an organization with annual revenue of $5 billion to $8 billion, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for all farmers.
Presently, there is no cost to the Canadian taxpayers and yet the government has not released a single estimate of how much this is anticipated to cost, nor has it released a business plan for a new Canadian wheat board. What business starts without a business plan? I thought perhaps the government was considering funding its failed enterprise on the back of farmers.
A week and a half ago, it was discovered that the government had raised the cap on the Canadian Wheat Board's contingency fund, originally developed to allow the Canadian Wheat Board to pursue more innovative marketing, as well as to gradually build a buffer to protect farmers. The reserve was capped at $60 million for the last 13 years. Everything above that went to farmers through the wheat pool of funds. At the 11th hour, just in the past week or so, the Conservative government suddenly raised the cap to $200 million. I could only imagine that even the farmers who support the government's position are furious to learn that their hard-earned money now provides for a Conservative government's slush fund, a fund designed to pay for the minister's new farming folly and the further liabilities of dismantling the Wheat Board.
Farmers could use this money. With the fragile state of the world economy, the Canada Wheat Board is more important than ever to grain exporting prairie provinces. This money is the financial backstop for their clout. These farmers have heard the prognostications of big grain companies like Viterra, Cargill, Richardson and even Bunge, most of whom have seen share prices spike with the news that the Conservatives would be killing the Wheat Board. Even today, Cargill announced that it will create their own wheat pool for farmers. What chance does an interim Canada wheat board have to survive? Almost nil.
Just weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal welcomed the demise of the Wheat Board, noting that under the present single desk system, “More money goes back to farmers than under an open market system”. It went on to say, “Grain handlers such as Cargill Inc., Viterra Inc., and Bunge Limited, could see their roles and returns in Canadian grain markets grow”.
Where will this growth come from? It will come from profit that would have been in the pockets of western farmers and small town economies, thanks to the Canadian Wheat Board. Do we need more proof? Alliance Grain Traders are just now opening a pasta processing plant in Regina, one that would not have been feasible before, unless it knew it could get the lowest possible price for farmers' wheat and durum, noting that the best way now to combat their market erosion is, “by negotiating lower prices from growers”.
Once the protection of the single desk is gone, these businesses will begin to divide and conquer farmers, negotiating them down to the lowest possible price, making farmers price takers instead of price setters, until inevitably, as was the case in Australia, there is only one large agribusiness left.
Western Canadian farmers on both sides of this debate should take a much closer look at the Australian model. Its example leaves so many questions unanswered but has demonstrated that deregulation has led to major agribusiness controlling the logistic chain, leaving farmers out in the cold.
Jock Munro, a grain farmer from New South Wales, Australia, in an article in Grain Matters, lamented:
We estimate we have lost $4 billion as growers since the wheat industry was deregulated three years ago.
The math just does not add up, unless the government is deliberately ensuring that Canadian farmers are the losers at the end of this deal.
Not contained in the bill is any contingency for 10 to 15 years down the road. We know that small farms and small town economies will now be in danger of failure, even The Economist magazine agrees. In an editorial at the outset of this debate it wrote:
Smaller producers, faced with mounting marketing costs, will inevitably have to sell their farms to bigger rivals or agribusiness companies...devastating small prairie towns, whose economies depend on individual farmers with disposable income.
We already know that the government will not intervene unless it is to pull the strings of the board of directors, so farmers are left at the mercy of the grain and rail companies. We know that any extra money that might have been returned to farmers this year is being held hostage by the minister and his government.
What of food sovereignty? I am concerned, as are farmers across the western provinces, and Canadians across this country, that once small farms start failing on the Conservative government watch they will be bought up by large agribusiness or even foreign countries that are more concerned with their own profits and internal interests than our food sovereignty.
Recently, the government has made a number of moves that are less than encouraging for Canadian agricultural industries. Having bowed to most of the United States' protectionist measures, the government has now placed supply management of eggs, milk and poultry on the table to negotiate away. First it was the Wheat Board and now it is supply management.
The precedent set by killing the Canadian Wheat Board is causing a great deal of concern among supply managed farmers. Farmers remember the Prime Minister telling the members of the trans-Pacific partnership that supply management was on the table, just as clearly as they remember him telling our European partners that it was on the table, just as clearly as they remember this quote from the same man, their esteemed Prime Minister, who said, “Take for example, ‘supply management’, our government-sponsored price-fixing cartels”. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food have always been clear that they favour the free market regardless of the cost to our Canadian farmers, Canada's food sovereignty and food security.
The bill is not about fairness or freedom. We have said from the very start to let farmers decide. The Conservative government, from the very start, has cut off any expression that opposes its ideological obsession with killing the single desk.
With that, I move:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word "That" and substituting the following:
This House declines to give third reading to Bill C-18, An Act to reorganize the Canadian Wheat Board and to make consequential and related amendments to certain acts, because members of the committee were unable to hear testimony from the primary producers affected by and concerned with the future commercialization of the Canadian Wheat Board.