Mr. Chair, I want to congratulate you on your appointment and also for coming in earlier in the week to welcome me to the House, and I thank you for that as well.
Agriculture is not only a fundamentally important aspect to Saskatchewan economic life, it is also a critical part of Saskatchewan's identity. Many of the people in Saskatchewan have a link to its fertile soil, from the seeders that announce the beginning of another year and the combines that harvest the wealth of the land, to the tending of the livestock that gain their life's sustenance off of it. It has long been understood that Saskatchewan has the unique status as being known as the breadbasket of the world. This has shaped Saskatchewan's identity.
However, it is also deeply understood that this way of life has been gravely threatened as well. It is this tremendously important and crucial aspect of Saskatchewan life that we have come here to debate, to discuss and to find solutions for. I am proud and honoured to be able to take part in this debate and I know all members are as well.
Agriculture, as the recent farm forecasts have shown and as the producers can attest to, is in an absolutely dire situation.
Saskatchewan's realized net farm income has been locked in a downward spiral in recent years. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released numbers which illustrate this in grim detail. In 2004 realized net income was $44 million which was off considerably from the 2000-04 average income of $336 million. In 2005 this number plummeted to the depths of a negative $77.1 million. This was in spite of record high farm payments for Canadian farmers, payments which totalled $1.1 billion in Saskatchewan alone.
With these devastating income numbers it is clear that there is a crisis that threatens farm families. However, these numbers cannot capture the true anguish they must face day to day, holding off payments to make other payments, squeezing the most out of every dollar, and perhaps most tragically, watching their livelihood and their lives being auctioned off to salvage something from the wreckage of their dreams.
Yet, to all of this, there is still more hurt. This year is projected to be the worst yet. Saskatchewan's 2006 realized net income is forecast to drop even further into negative territory to a collective loss of $203.4 million. What is more, these dismal projections even factor in the $755 million that was already allocated but could not be delivered until after the election which was unfortunately called in November.
Clearly more action is needed. Kevin Hursh, a noted consulting agrologist and farmer stated in a February 8, 2006 article that “it would take an additional billion dollars just to get Canadian farm income back to the level of 2005, a level that everyone agrees was adequate”. One billion dollars. If this does not give the government pause for serious thought into acknowledging agriculture as a top priority and a serious crisis that needs immediate attention, I truly do not know what will.
Further to that, although I am glad the Conservatives delivered the $755 million the Liberal government booked before the election, I am dismayed, to say the least, that they continue to hold that money over the heads of producers. I say this because as of yet, to my understanding, the government has still not made a decision, a crucial final decision, on how that money will be treated under CAIS. Producers must wait to see whether money that is already being delivered is money given in good faith because of the hard times or whether it will be clawed back. This is money that will be desperately needed just to pay the bills of production.
During the election the Liberals made a commitment that the money would not affect CAIS applications. I ask that the Conservative government meet us on that commitment as well.
Conservatives made promises in their election platform for $500 million in additional funding. It is clearly not enough to deal with the crisis but it would be a start. Even if they do deliver on the $500 million, Mr. Hursh in that same February 8 article noted that the program payments in 2006 are expected to be $4.2 billion. Add $500 million to the 2006 total and the 2005 total of $4.9 billion is still not matched. Yet now, they are backing off on that modest start. Now we never hear about the $500 million let alone whether it will ever be delivered.
In fact, the minister went as far as telling the provincial agriculture ministers that he lacked even the authorization to make any commitments to them. This is unfortunate. On top of that, all he offered was a complete dismissal of their concerns. In a March 21 Leader-Post article, he stated: “I'm sure if the feds just want to trot out a bunch of money, that provinces won't mind but that's just not in the cards”. The minister is talking about money that would go to farms and farm families. This is not about throwing a bone to the provinces.
This led the Premier of Saskatchewan, who has all party support behind him on this issue, to seek an audience with the Prime Minister. He spoke with him about this issue and, as the premier put it at that time:
I hope I'm speaking tomorrow to the individual who will have the authority to say yes. The producers in Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan and the West are facing some very difficult times and we need to see that money flow this spring to help with spring seeding.
In that meeting with the premier, the Prime Minister heard about the negative forecast facing farmers and their families. He knows about the troubles grains and oilseeds producers are experiencing and the uncertainty that livestock owners must grapple with. Every word uttered in disdain about the past only wastes the time and expense of the necessary efforts that must be made now to address the crisis that the farmers are facing.
Farmers and their families need action. They need real assistance that will at least match what was done in the past. Moreover, they need guarantees that the grains and oilseeds payments will not be clawed back on their CAIS applications. Most of all, they need the government to consider the plight of farmers a priority right now. A crucial aspect of Saskatchewan's economy and identity is in the balance.
We all know that the treasury is flush, so it is not a matter of a fiscal challenge. It is a matter of choice and it is a choice to help farmers.