Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-72, the amendments to the Canadian Wheat Board Act. This is an important bill. It is an important issue which I have been following for a long time.
I have discussed this matter with many producers throughout Canada and, in particular, throughout Saskatchewan and the prairies. I attended meetings of the Western Grain Marketing Panel when they were held in the province. I attended the meetings in Kindersley and North Battleford. Little of what was talked about is reflected in Bill C-72.
Bill C-72 is not being given the usual second reading in the House. Instead it is being introduced here for a short three hour debate and then sent directly to the agriculture committee for study. I definitely support the committee study but I oppose the process of fast tracking debate in the House in principle.
This process of sending a bill to committee before second reading is a recent innovation in the legislative process. In some cases it works very well, but in other cases it does not work well at all and I believe that is the case with Bill C-72. Bill C-72 is important to all Canadian farmers. Therefore, it is important to Canada.
Second reading is traditionally a time when members of Parliament address the principle of recently drafted legislation. It is a time to examine in public debate the concepts on which the bill, as written, are based. It is a time when MPs who have discussed the legislation with their constituents can put those comments on the record and share them with other MPs in the hopes of influencing the clause by clause discussion which follows when the committee studies the bill.
Not all MPs can speak during this shortened three hour debate. Not all MPs are members of the agriculture committee. Therefore not all MPs and, most importantly, not all of their constituents will have their voices heard on the principles contained in this legislation before third and final reading, when it is too late to make substantial changes to the bill. This process is simply fast tracking the legislation, despite the fact that perhaps there will be a shortened committee stage.
The process of shortening debate at second reading was designed for highly technical bills and not for ones like the Canadian Wheat Board legislation which also has political and subjective economic content. I object to this process being used for Bill C-72. I believe the minister of agriculture is simply using it to avoid lengthy public debate on a bill which he knows is flawed and which he does not want to fix.
I use as an example the fact that the day this legislation was introduced the minister said he was prepared to accept amendments. The next day the agriculture committee chairperson said: "This bill will in fact be amended". Today the parliamentary secretary, when introducing the debate, said that the minister would look at amendments to the bill. If the minister knew the bill was flawed and needed amendment he should have written it as such to begin with and not have introduced it the way it is today. He should have simply said: "I am prepared to listen, talk to me". If he knew it needed amending he should have done it originally.
I also object to the timing of the debate. It falls in the middle of the voting process on the future of barley within the jurisdiction of the Canadian Wheat Board. I and others had asked that the bill be delayed until voting had concluded on the barley motion to ensure that both these matters got the full attention of the public which they deserve. I am sorry that the minister has chosen not to listen to this advice.
On the other hand, so as not to seem entirely negative, I am pleased that the agriculture committee to which this legislation is being sent is talking about travelling outside of Ottawa to make itself accessible to farmers, farm groups and communities on this bill. I would argue that the success of the Canadian Wheat Board
certainly depends on the legislation changing, as the views of the farmers and the farm communities are important.
The committee, if it chooses to travel and if this House gives the approval of the committee to travel, would be doing the right thing in this regard. I can only hope that it has given everyone enough time to prepare adequately to respond to the challenge that is in front of all of us.
This is an important bill and therefore I want to once again express my concern and disappointment that the minister chose not to seek the face to face advice of the farmer elected Canadian Wheat Board Advisory Committee in drafting the bill. The advisory committee, which is being replaced in this legislation, is made up of the farmers most knowledgeable about the operations of the Canadian Wheat Board and the affect those operations have at the farm gate.
The minister should have involved the advisory committee immediately right from the beginning but he did not. Obviously the flaws in this bill are there because he chose not to consult and therefore it is obvious that we could be avoiding unnecessary debate, saving lots of time and money had the minister done this differently. The advisory committee's advice in designing and drafting this legislation should have been sought as a matter of course.
Many in the House today are not farmers and certainly not farmers of grains under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Wheat Board. Therefore they may not realize that the economies of grain farming during the last 10 years have been stressful. Last year's crop and price were probably the best in that 10 year period which generally was characterized by low prices, low yields, low grades and lower and lower morale. Bankruptcies and quit claims were high, as were farm debts, suicides and on farm accidents.
At the same, time huge changes in the international marketplace have been taking place, not the least of which have been the subsidy talks of the Uruguay round of GATT and the subsequent establishment of the World Trade Organization.
Canada agreed with the United States and Europe to do away with a number of programs identified, I think incorrectly, as subsidies, and as a result Canadian farmers have lost their ad hoc emergency programs, the Crow benefit and certain supply management guarantees. I might add that Canadian governments under Mulroney and the present Prime Minister have done this without seeking similar moves by Europe and the United States, both of which are maintaining their GATT identified farm support programs.
Into this volatile mix is thrown the Canadian Wheat Board, the agency that sells Canadian wheat and barley to the international marketplace. This agency which maintained sales and prices during the turbulent times of the last 10 years has been targeted by the United States as an unfair trading practice with support from a number of Canadians, many of whom are seeking ways to escape huge debts they have built trying to survive through the very tough times.
This is a most vulnerable time in the history of the Canadian Wheat Board and this government should be doing everything in its power to support and sustain it from those outside attacks. This legislation and, I might add, the barley vote as well are only fueling the debate which has the possibility to weaken the board and therefore jeopardizes its future and therefore the future of farm income.
If nothing else, the minister of agriculture should resist all pressures to make substantial systematic changes to the board. He should give the board his unconditional and unqualified support and ensure that on the operational side the board has the flexibility it needs to address the internal and domestic challenges it faces.
Therefore in looking at Bill C-72 we have to look at the bill in that larger context. Perhaps the best thing the minister could do right now is to withdraw the bill because it weakens the position of the board and jeopardizes the future income of Canadian farmers across the prairies at a time prior to an election when we should discuss this during the election campaign.