Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address the government's vision for the future of the Canadian Wheat Board because the future of the Canadian Wheat Board will be bright.
To speak to the motion before, we fully realize that farmers want input on this issue before any changes to the Canadian Wheat Board are made. We are committed to moving forward in an orderly and transparent manner.
There should be no surprises and no hidden agenda. We will be clear and up front with Canadians about our commitment to marketing choice for western Canadian wheat and barley growers.
We were clear and up front with the sector about our commitment to consult and to listen. On July 27 we held a round table discussion in Saskatchewan with a cross section of western Canadian farmers and stakeholder organizations that support marketing choice. Some good ideas came out of that exercise, including the recommendation to launch a task force to explore transitional and structural issues.
We went ahead on that and yesterday the minister was pleased to release the findings of that task force report. The report recommends a four stage transition from a Canadian Wheat Board with monopoly powers to a marketing choice environment, preparing for change, forming a new Canadian Wheat Board and launching the new Canadian Wheat Board with transition measures and post-transition.
We are very appreciative of the work of the task force. It did a lot of hard work on a short time line. We will be examining the report in detail and we would like to consult on the ideas the task force has put forward.
As part of that consultation, an hour ago the minister announced that a plebiscite on barley will be held in the new year. The government considers that this plebiscite will form part of the ongoing consultation with producers on the issue. The plebiscite will be on barley only.
We think farmers are ready to make a decision on the barley side. It will have a wide voter base and be founded on a clear question. This is in line with provisions in the Canadian Wheat Board Act which requires that the voting process be determined by the minister.
The minister will wait until the beginning of the plebiscite period before he will announce the voter's list and the exact question or questions which will be put on the ballot. Until then, he welcomes and we all welcome the input of farmers and farm groups on what these questions should be. The minister also wants to engage in a more general consultation about the ideas from the task force or others on how a voluntary Canadian Wheat Board can be a viable player in a marketing choice environment.
When we cut through the rhetoric and the noise that we hear constantly around the wheat board issue, what we are really talking about is opportunity. Opportunity is what brought people to Canada and it is what continues to draw them today. Opportunity is what settled the west and made it the agricultural powerhouse it is today. Opportunity is what will carry the Canadian agriculture and agrifood sector into the future.
On January 23 of this year, Canadians voted for change and Canadian farmers voted for change. We campaigned on the promise to create new opportunities for Canadian farmers. What is our rationale for that change?
First, the government intends to do the things we promised to do. People voted for change and that is what will be delivered.
Second, producers tells us that the current system is suffocating innovation and stifling entrepreneurship. Farmers are independent-minded, which is why they have chosen the path they are on. They are entrepreneurial business people. They want to call their own shots on when to plant, when to harvest and how to market.
Canadian agricultural producers want and need opportunity. Like their forebears who first broke the prairie ground, they want the opportunity to succeed and the freedom to make their own choices on how they produce and market their crops. They do not think they should be criminalized for that, as they have been in the past.
In the face of a long term decline in bulk commodity prices, farmers want the opportunity to add value to their crops and capture more profits beyond the farm gate. They take all the risk and they make all the investment. They deserve to have the opportunity to seek out the best possible return for their product, just as they would with canola, pulse crops, apples or hogs or a number of any other farm products raised in Canada. For most of the past seven decades, western Canadian wheat and barley growers have not had that choice.
The Canadian Wheat Board monopoly on wheat and barely was imposed by the Parliament due to a variety of different dynamics. The system was essentially designed to collect the grain produced by thousands of small farmers at small country elevators, market it around the world as a uniform commodity on the basis of grade standards and divide the returns from this process among all the producers who contributed the grain.
Today, those dynamics have changed and our approaches and structures need to change with them.
The idea of selling a uniform commodity made much more sense in the days when a few countries dominated the grain export market and large quasi-government buyers negotiated long term supply contracts on a national level.
Today, there are numerous new or growing exporters in South America, the former Soviet Union and Australia.
The buy side of the market, too, has moved away from the commodity procurement model of the past toward a situation in which a large number of mainly private buyers select a range of quality attributes for particular market segments. Due to low cost competition, the commodity end of the market is under relentless pricing pressure.
We must make no mistake. Farmers do see a future in grain. However, they are looking for new, value added revenue streams and greater marketing flexibility. No longer are Canadian producers the proverbial hewers of wood and drawers of water. Over the last 15 years, there has been a paradigm shift. We are seeing the advent of the value added side of agriculture, the agrifood side, and it is doing very well. It has seen huge increases. It is controlling the vast majority of the exports and domestic use in this country now.
Currently, by law, western Canadian wheat and barley growers are fenced off from that business. They are prevented from having the same rights as every other producer in the country about where to sell their product, starting a pasta plant, for instance, or a value-added organic grain business, or supplying high yield low protein wheat to ethanol plants in the U.S.
Those are only examples. Every producer and every situation is unique. The best person to decide the best production and marketing options for their farms is the person who makes the decisions, takes the risk and lives with the consequences. We want to level the playing field and give western Canadian grain producers the same rights and opportunities that other farmers in Canada have.
To those who want to continue to restrict western grain producers from having the same rights as others, I ask them to show me solid proof that such a ban is actually paying benefits for them. I have yet to see any.
Our vision for the Canadian Wheat Board is a strong, voluntary and profitable wheat board, one that can offer farmers a viable but not an exclusive marketing choice.
There are some out there who would say that we should get rid of the Wheat Board but I am not one of them and neither is our government. We want to have a wheat board but we want it to be in a marketing choice world.
We see a bright future for a strong, viable and voluntary wheat board for those who choose to pool together and use its services. Western Canadian wheat and barley farmers have a world-class product. They will now be given the opportunity to use their savvy, market intelligence and initiative to maximize their returns. If they choose, they will still be able to sell to the Canadian Wheat Board.
Even farmers who strongly criticize the current federal government imposed monopoly have said that the Canadian Wheat Board needs the opportunity to succeed in a commercial environment and to be a viable, ongoing marketing option for producers. I see no reason why the board cannot continue to function and be a strong force in the international grain market.
To conclude, change is never easy, especially change of this magnitude. There will be adjustment and transition but I am convinced that at the end of the day the sector will be stronger and more viable with marketing choice than without.
I started out talking about opportunity. Despite the negativity that is out there, we see a bright future for the Canadian Wheat Board if things are structured properly and in a way to meet producers' needs.
What must drive everything we do is meeting producers' needs. This is why we, as government, are moving forward on better business risk management programming, on biofuels, on restoring beef trade, on science and innovation and on a number of other critical issues where action has been long overdue. It is why we allocated $1.5 billion to this sector in this year's budget, three times our original commitment. It is also why we are moving forward on marketing choice for our producers.
The grain industry is of vital importance to Canada's economy and it is a proud part of our natural history. The government intends to serve it well and it intends to act in a way that provides the best chance to earn a living for these proud men and women who toil in the fields so all Canadians can enjoy the fruits of their labours.