Mr. Speaker, I commend the member for Yorkton--Melville for bringing an important issue before us, it addresses two items: first, whether the Canadian Wheat Board should continue in the orderly manner in which it has until now or whether it should maximize returns for farmers and, second, the ability to opt out of the Canadian Wheat Board.
We heard the member for Timiskaming--Cochrane speak about applying the Canadian Wheat Board to people other than the ones in his riding. He may not understand that from its inception the wheat board was not a mandatory marketing agency. The government at the time was forced to make it into a voluntary marketing system. In those days the Liberals had some sort of sense and supported a voluntary marketing agency.
It was only during wartime when cheap food was needed in Europe that the board was made mandatory in 1943 and ever since farmers have paid the price for forced mandatory marketing.
I am glad to see the motion come forward for discussion. The objective of the board is to market wheat in an orderly manner. That means a few things. The goal of the wheat board is to market orderly, not necessarily efficiently. There is a big difference between those two things.
There is little willingness to get top dollar if the main focus is on orderliness. There is little demand for accountability which in particular leads to a lack of openness. The board has been notorious over the years for not being open. Farmers have not been able to look into the books to see what is going on there.
That worked okay for decades until farmers began to realize that the board was not always acting in their best interests. I can think of a couple of examples, particularly in the early 1990s when there was a lot of feed wheat. Farmers tried to market it into the United States. The board took that market away and refused to give farmers a buyback. The board actually delivered wheat into the United States at almost a dollar a bushel less than the farmers had arranged themselves. That was a wake up call for many farmers.
Farmers also began to realize that they did not need the board. They were capable of marketing their own wheat and began to chafe under the mandatory regulations.
The lack of openness showed up in a couple of other ways over the years. Sometimes the Canadian Wheat Board attempted to deal with that. Presently it is conducting an audit. It is interesting that the audit is being conducted under its terms and it will be able to release whatever parts it chooses to release. It is hardly the open audit we might expect and interestingly farmers are paying the bill for the audit.
Another interesting attempt to limit openness is the rule that was passed by the board of directors limiting its ability to criticize the board. As farmers begin to elect more pro-choice board members the board clamps down on them and does not give them a voice in public. If the directors cannot speak out, how in the world will farmers be able to speak out?
Another problem with focusing on orderliness rather than on effectiveness and maximizing returns is that we begin to see that image becomes far more important than effectiveness.
The communications budget for the Canadian Wheat Board over the last three years has gone up 300%. It is now spending well over $2 million of farmers' money each year just to convince farmers that the board is doing a good job. I would consider that to be a conflict of interest, as would any open minded person.
The board's training and development has gone up 300% in two years. That primarily goes to customer relations people who are in the community trying to convince farmers that the board is doing a good job. We have no way of checking on the effectiveness of it, but it is sure trying to convince us that it is doing the job.
The most objectionable aspect of mandatory marketing is that it continues to reflect old time socialist thinking. When Karl Marx wrote his works some people apparently were under the impression that it was non-fiction. It has been proven many times since that it was fiction.
That thinking continues to hold people back in western Canada. Being from Saskatchewan I often wonder about socialism where the main objective appears to be to keep people back rather than to give everyone an equal opportunity.
It punishes innovation. Farmers who want to move ahead, who want to begin to process their products, have absolutely no opportunity to do so. It also causes people to live in fear.
I was appointed critic of the wheat board last summer. We brought out a number of news releases. On virtually every one of the news releases the wheat board reacted with paranoia for some particular reason rather than address the issues that were brought out. It tried to portray us as confused and unsure of what we were saying when the issues were clear. It refused to address the issues and it just reacted in fear. That comes out of its monopoly thinking.
It was a pleasure to hear the member for Yorkton--Melville bring forth the suggestion that we change the objective of the Wheat Board Act to maximize returns because that would have some immediate impact. Effectiveness would become a number one priority as we would move away from public relations into actually doing a good job for farmers.
Accountability and openness would take place within the organization. It would be the beginning of free enterprise. Maximizing returns for farmers would give them the opportunity to do something with their own money. There would definitely be more money in the pockets of farmers.
The key to the motion is the ability to opt out. Presently we have no choice. We find ourselves in situations where the Americans continually issue trade challenges to us because the wheat board is not transparent. We do not know what the selling price for wheat is and it challenges that.
We see no accountability, especially at the producer level. As a producer there is no way that I can hold the board accountable for what it sells grain for. Therefore I have no way of knowing whether or not it will be maximizing returns.
There are secrets everywhere. I talked about the paranoia within the board. Often big companies get special deals that producers cannot possibly get. They get accredited exportation licences, which individual farmers are not allowed to have, and then they cut their deals with the wheat board.
The end result is that farmers cannot tell whether or not they are doing well. There is just no way of checking on that. Government members stopped the motion from becoming votable this morning. There would be some interesting results if it were to pass.
First, we would see some competition which would be good for several reasons. It would bring accountability to the whole process. As farmers go out and market their grain they will go to the coffee shops and talk about how well they have done and what they have done with their product. The wheat board would also have to be accountable to be able to do the same types of things with the product or it would lose the business. The Canadian Wheat Board would have to perform or die. It would not continue to get a free ride on farmer paid public relations.
If the motion were to pass it would bring in a few other things as well. It would give freedom to farmers that they have never had. This is a time in the farming community where people are moving toward identity preserved grains. They see opportunities in things like our marketed high protein wheat by making contacts with different companies and unique marketing opportunities. If we could open this up and allow people to opt out of the Canadian Wheat Board and its restrictive system, it would give them all these opportunities.
It would give opportunities to local communities to thrive and succeed. As I travel throughout my community I see people trying very hard to look for opportunities. If we could only process the product that we grow then most us would have a chance to succeed. We are not allowed to do that as it presently stands. In fact 70% of Saskatchewan's agriculture production is exported in a raw form. We can do nothing with it.
Communities in rural western Canada would have a chance to stand on their own. The government wants to get out of supporting farmers and here is an ideal opportunity. The government does not want to give support but it also does not want to give any freedom either. This is an opportunity to change that.
The Canadian Wheat Board is never mentioned during all this talk of increasing profitability on the Canadian prairies. It is because it is not an opportunity. It is an impediment and not a help to economic growth in western Canada.
It reminds me of some of the countries in the world where cattle are sacred. The wheat board is like that. It is sacred. It is worshipped but it is of absolutely no use to the people around it.
It has become marginalized and increasingly irrelevant. I think this would be an excellent time and an excellent motion for the government to learn from and to begin to use to address the problems in Canadian agriculture.