Mr. Speaker, it is always with great pride that I come here to talk about agriculture and farmers.
The parliamentary secretary tried to encapsulate what we did around the bill, how the committee functioned and whether it had great and vigorous debate on amendments. If I were able to dance, it is less than what used to be referred to as the “one-two”. Usually, it is a “one and a half” when it comes to debate from the Conservative side. When the Conservatives do not really have any more logical things to say, they just say “no”, which is the intent of the debate.
When the Conservatives portray this as some sort of vigorous and spirited debate in this place, one gets used the hyperbole, embellishment and all of the other things that happen here. The parliamentary secretary is taking somewhat of a poetic license around his descriptor of how the agriculture committee works, except for the fact that, for the most part, it is a pretty genial committee, to be truthful, as far as the tenor.
I would like to thank the chair of the committee, who was very good and generous about ensuring there was a balance of witnesses. When I say that, there was an equal number of witnesses who spoke quite passionately in favour of Bill C-18 as was without amendment. That is even before the government's amendments. On the other side, in equal number, there were many who had a number of amendments to put forward. A few of those amendments were covered by what the government did.
None of them ever thought about the major amendment that the government made, which had to do with the advanced payment process and about recouping money from farmers who went bankrupt. That is why it used the example of the student loan program. It was not actually my narrative or descriptive of how the advanced payment reclaim program would work. It was from the department of Agriculture and Agri-Food. When I specifically asked to have the six pages of amendments to fix this one piece explained, the department told me that it was a very technical piece, but that it was like the student loan program.
For those of us who know young people who have student loans, that conjures up a vision that is not pleasant. I do not know too many student loan recipients who think the program is a great one to be in. They would see it as a very onerous program. That is what the government decided to do. That was its major amendment.
The government's minor tinkering with the farmers' privilege piece did not do the first thing we suggested it ought do. We do not believe it is a privilege for farmers to save seed. We think it is their right to save seed. Some would ask is that not just semantics, or are we not just being wordsmiths? Legislation is about words, and words are important. That is why we spend an exhaustive amount of time, according to the government, talking. It says that we should do more doing and less talking, but carving legislation is about writing the words down, and debating the words and their very meaning.
Fundamentally, the difference between a right and a privilege under the code of law, of which I am not a learned person in the sense of being a lawyer, is the significant difference between one having a right to do something and one having a privilege to actually do it. That is a significant piece that I think the government understood. I think it purposely decided to leave it as a privilege because it intended to do things. At least, it would leave itself with the ability to do things.
One of the things that was mentioned earlier, and my friend from Timmins—James Bay pointed it out, was the minister's ability, on a case by case basis, to change that privilege. My view is that if it were a fundamental right, he would be unable to do it on a case by case basis because he might have to come back to here. We suggested that needed that be struck from the bill and if the government wanted to change things, it could write new legislation and bring it back here.
The government says that it is a bit onerous and that it takes too long. It takes too long for who? For the seed company, of course, the folks who will end up with the ownership of seeds that they wish to sell, because they will say that they have developed it or done something with it and they own that intellectual property, which is understood.
However, if the minister simply allows things to disappear for farmers, where is the balance in that? For us, clearly Bill C-18 was about balancing the needs of those seed developers and the rights of farmers, and ensure that the balance was appropriate and not totally unequal. Those who held the intellectual property would still have greater weight than those who did not. They would have the ability to sell or not, they owned it, and no one else could have it if they had not previously bought it. This became problematic for us, and to be truthful, problematic for most farm organizations across the country. Most said that needed to be changed.
The minister came back with a minor tweak to say that the farmers could now store seed. However, the initial legislation did not say that. It actually said that one could save it, clean it, but not store it. Therefore, what were they going to do with it? If they could not store it, where was it going to go after they saved it? It had to be kept somewhere. It could not be sent to a friend down the road to store it, because that would be a commercial transaction even though no money was exchanged. There is no exchange even for non-monetary purposes in this legislation, and the seed could only be kept for oneself. Therefore, the Conservatives made this minor tweak to enable farmers to store it, and that is all they did under farmers' privilege, even though it was identified by a number of farm groups across the country as needing needed a bit more strength for that particular aspect.
UPOV '91, which is the major piece in this legislation, is the new threshold on intellectual property rights when it comes to seed. There is no question about that, and it is accepted around the world.
UPOV is simply an acronym for intellectual property and '91 signifies the year it came into force with a number of countries, including a previous government here which signed on but never enabled it. This has been around for a long time.
Therefore, there was the issue of getting it done, which had been tried before, but the majority of farmers said that they did not want it, so it was withdrawn. However, the reason it has come forward now is that although farmers are still basically leery of UPOV '91 and what it may hold for them years down the road, there are very few alternatives these days.
Public funding for public research through Agriculture Canada has been on the decline for the last 25 years. However, nearly every farm and farm group will tell us the same thing: they need more money to go back into public research so there is a balance with the privately-held independent companies.
To be truthful, private companies are in the business of making a profit, and that is not a dirty word. Yes, I am a New Democrat, but for private companies, profit is not a dirty word. That is what they are there to do. They provide a product or service and sell it. There is nothing wrong with that.
However, I will be so bold as to say that we take seed to grow crop to make food. It is a simple proposition. Anybody who puts seed in the ground and looks after it well, it will grow. It may be flowers, vegetables or anything. Farmers do exceedingly well in our country and they deserve to have the latest technology and seeds to do that. The problem is this. At what price and are they a captive market?
Our view of this was how to balance it. One way is to protect farmers so they can be empowered in dealing with their competitors so they can withstand the push of, “here's what you're getting and here's the price you're paying”, because they have options. The problem is that the government has limited those options.
Clearly, that was the dilemma we had with the legislation. It was not the fact that a private seed company would own intellectual property under UPOV '91. We did not fundamentally disagree with that at all.
We wanted to see the tables balanced. The Conservatives did not want to see the tables balanced. They have allowed the table to be unevenly balanced because, even on a case-by-case basis, as I said earlier, the ministry has the right to take some things away if it chooses. That, we think, is not the direction to go when farmers are now at the whim of the minister, not Parliament, with the latter now able to say, I do not think they need that.
One of the other amendments we tried to push forward was that the seed companies themselves can now appeal to CFIA not to register the seed. If they do not register it, it means that it is totally private, meaning in turn that the farmer cannot save it, because only the registered varieties can be saved. So now the farmer cannot save it. Not only are the seed companies allowed to lobby the minister to see if he can remove certain privileges, but they also now have the right to ask CFIA not to register a particular variety of seed if they do not want that done. That gives them more power in the marketplace. The fewer the varieties of seed that get registered, the less the ability of farmers to find a competitive price for the seeds they need to buy.
That is why we made amendments. We did not strike the bill. We did not go into committee and say, “Let's eliminate this or let's eliminate that“, and try to wipe it all out. We did not do that at all. We went to committee with the good intention of trying to make a bill that would be acceptable to the seed producers and their intellectual property rights, and for farmers who are the end-users of that particular product. That was our goal at committee.
Unfortunately, my friends on the other side of the table, in government, decided that they we did not need to level it out that well. They believe they know what is best for farmers. We heard that in the House this morning: the parliamentary secretary said that they know best for farmers. However, what he did not say was that when witnesses and farm groups and farmers came here, including the Conservatives' witnesses, or at least ones that we did not call, they said that we needed a substantive amendment. My colleague wants to suggest that there is only one group we spoke to.
One of the amendments came from my discussion with the vice-president of Bayer CropScience AG. Back in February I had a two-hour conversation with the vice-president of Bayer on the phone. We discussed the piece on farmers' privilege and their ability to store it. When we went through that with him, he said that was not actually what he wanted to see. He wanted to see a more balanced approach to this. That is when we suggested that we would draft an amendment that would give balance, but still protected his company's intellectual property rights if it developed a new variety. It is only fair if they have put the money in and own that property that they have a right to charge for it. That is what UPOV '91 said.
Even the vice-president of Bayer was saying that, yes, he heard us, that we were right and needed to find a balance. To suggest somehow that due diligence was not done on this side of the House by New Democrats and the agriculture critic is a bit facetious, because, quite frankly, it was.
We spoke to other major chemical groups, seed manufacturers, agricultural groups, and individual farmers. In fact, we probably put more effort into Bill C-18 than I have seen since I went on the agriculture committee back in 2008. Why? It is because when the government tabled the bill, it was in such a hurry to do it. It tabled the bill a year ago, I think, and it has languished, so we actually had the ability to go out and talk to people for a long period of time, which was nice. We did exactly that. We talked to experts on intellectual property, who eventually came to the committee and talked about those types of rights, including a lawyer who specializes in agriculture. We had all of that discussion to frame our position so that farmers would get the best deal they possibly could, based on a balanced approach, which is really what we wanted.
What does it mean for farmers and their privilege, and what could it mean? That is the great unknown, because it has all gone back into the hands of the minister rather Parliament. There will a question now as to where the royalties will be in the system. A lot of questions were asked about that. There is a debate as to end-point royalties or beginning royalties. When a farmer buys the seed, they get it there. Some say they would rather pay at the end, because if the seed is not any good, then maybe they will not pay that much money. If the seed is really good, then they will pay a percentage based on the seed that was really good and they got a great crop.
There is a fundamental debate about that, which should be had by farm groups and farmers, but the dilemma is that it belongs in the hands of the minister. New Democrats hope he will have a conversation with the farm groups, but it is not a sure thing.
Every bill needs a regulatory process, and I accept that. The problem with most of the bills that come before the House is that the government puts all of that and more into its own hands and makes decisions without the House having an opportunity to debate it. Of course, its catch-all phrase is, “Don't worry, we will consult”. Who will consult? The parliamentary secretary says he has a list of folks he likes to consult, and there are folks that New Democrats consult that he obviously does not want to listen to. That is not consultation.
People who both agree and disagree with one's view have to be consulted. In fact, the folks who disagree should be consulted more often than the ones who do, because they challenge one to think more about a particular piece of legislation and how it can be made better. It also hones one's ability to discuss with them and explain why one is going in a certain direction, which allows them to see why one is headed down that road.
However, one can change directions, as New Democrats have done here. We said that we wanted to get the bill to committee to have good discussions, which happened. We had good discussions and brought forward substantive amendments for sure. It is always hard for government to accept substantive amendments, I understand. It was not about taking the bill apart but strengthening it for farmers, the very people whom the parliamentary secretary said the government was there for. The amendments put forward were for farmers, crafted mainly by what farmers told us either at committee or privately in meetings and conversations that have taken place over the last eight months.
The parliamentary secretary says it is only one group that New Democrats listen to. I have a number of letters from rural municipalities in Saskatchewan, not from individuals but councils in rural municipalities, that actually adopted resolutions, not just one but a few. They adopted resolutions that said Bill C-18 should be defeated.
I did not receive these last week but at the beginning of the year during the consultative process. Rural municipalities in Saskatchewan were saying that this is not a good bill for farmers. That was six or seven months ago. They were all saying this in March, early in the process, when copies of those letters were sent to me, the originals having gone to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Therefore, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food was well aware that a number of rural municipalities in Saskatchewan were saying no thanks to Bill C-18—not even as amended as New Democrats proposed. They were saying no, carte blanche: “We don't want it, it is not a good bill for farmers”, they said. Yet the parliamentary secretary and the minister would have us believe that everything is rosy in farm country and every farmer in Canada loves what the government is doing. The reality is that this is not true, just as in life one cannot be loved all of the time by everyone—unless, of course, one is Speaker. I know that the Speaker loves all of us all of the time because we are so well behaved.
Clearly, there are diverging viewpoints. With this bill, I actually thought there was enough give and take and room between the government and the opposition to craft a really significant bill for Canadian farmers. Unfortunately, much to my chagrin, as I learn as I get older, I was wrong. I was disappointed by that, but it still does not shake my faith in Canadian farmers.
Canadian farmers really know what they want, they know how to tell us what they want, and I would suggest to my friends on the other side that Canadian farmers will show them what they want during the election in 2015. I suggest that those rural municipalities in Saskatchewan are a bellwether for the members who say they did not want it and are now about to drive it down their throats.
I will make the same appeal to the other side that the parliamentary secretary made to this side. Members representing people who live on the Prairies may want to rethink Bill C-18 when it comes time to be whipped, because, clearly, there are a lot of folks in those ridings who are saying no thanks.