Fierce fight over wheat board not over yet

A special legislative committee will work late for its third night in a row Thursday on a quick review of the government's legislation to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly.

Special committee speeds review of C-18 in three marathon evening hearings

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz speaks to reporters on October 18, at a news conference to mark the tabling of C-18, the "Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act." (CBC)

The Canadian Wheat Board may be running ads and heading to court to fight the government's plans to dismantle its "single desk" monopoly system for selling Prairie wheat and barley, but Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz remains confident the Conservative government's desire to change the system will prevail.

The Harper government seems set to have its way sooner, rather than later. A special legislative committee is working late three nights in a row this week on a quick review for bill C-18, the government's legislation to change the system that gives the Canadian Wheat Board the exclusive right to sell wheat and barley from western Canada.

The special committee was struck only a week ago after the bill passed at second reading in the House of Commons. Alberta Conservative MP Blaine Calkins is the chair and Conservative MPs hold the majority of votes on the committee.

The committee began hearing witnesses Tuesday evening, and sat until after 11 p.m. hearing testimony from departmental officials, farmer representatives and several grain industry spokespeople who served on a working group to advise Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

On Wednesday evening, MPs heard from more witnesses for four hours.

Up first was testimony from current and former farmer-elected directors of the wheat board, including its chair Allen Oberg. Oberg, a grain farmer elected to the position by other farmers, has been the chief spokesman for those who want to preserve the wheat board in its current form. 

"One thing we haven't heard in this sham of a debate is the voice of farmers," Oberg told MPs, explaining the rationale for the wheat board's decision last week to sue the government to prevent C-18 from becoming law. "The Harper government has denied all farmers their legal right to have a say in the future of the Canadian Wheat Board, whether those farmers are big or small."

In contrast to Oberg's view, two directors who resigned over the last week also testified: Alberta farmers Henry Vos and Jeff Nielsen were the only farmer-elected directors in favour of ending the board's marketing monopoly and transitioning to a voluntary wheat board to compete on the open market. Both felt obligated to resign after the other eight elected members of the wheat board, who hold a majority, voted to proceed with the court action.

The lawsuit is based on section 47 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act, which states that a minister cannot introduce a bill in Parliament to change the marketing system for western wheat or barley without adequately consulting the board and holding a vote to obtain a mandate from Prairie farmers.

The wheat board believes that Ritz's introduction of C-18 last month broke this law, and is calling for a fair vote before anything proceeds.

The board conducted its own a plebiscite on the issue over the summer and found that a small majority of both wheat and barley producers wanted to preserve the current "single desk" monopoly system. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz continues to dismiss this result as an "expensive survey."

The government believes the only mandate it needs springs from the May 2 federal election, which resulted in a majority Conservative government with Tory MPs representing nearly every rural seat on the Prairies.

Ritz remains confident

After these farmers on both sides of the issue had their say, reflecting the fierce divisions among Prairie farmers over the change, it was the minister of agriculture's turn to testify at the committee.

Ritz disputed claims that the wheat board benefits all farmers by offering them a price premium. And he showed no signs of budging from the government's intention to pass the legislation quickly.

"Farmers in the value chain need clarity and certainty going into the future," Ritz told MPs, explaining that the changes are intended to take effect in time for selling the 2012 crop.

Farmers and businesses in the grain industry need to plan for the next growing season and could be adversely affected by a prolonged period of uncertainty as the wheat board transitions to a voluntary pool that is only one of several options farmers may choose for selling their wheat and barley. The need to pass the legislation quickly to minimize risk for farmers was cited when the government used time allocation to limit debate at second reading in the House of Commons.

Speaking to reporters after his appearance, Ritz noted that the Senate is already making plans for its hearings, as part of an expedited process for moving C-18 through its final legislative hurdles.

C-18 could clear the House of Commons by mid-November.

Ritz brushed off suggestions from reporters that court challenges could stall the changes.

"Anybody has the right to take an issue to the courts," Ritz said. "We’ll work within that system."

"I don’t see at the end of the day from the legal opinions that I’ve seen where there’s any status to move forward on this," Ritz said, expressing confidence that the government will eventually prevail.

Heated debate ahead

On Thursday evening, the committee is scheduled to sit until midnight in a six-hour clause-by-clause review of the legislation.

The Opposition may propose amendments to the bill. However, changing the legislation may prove difficult, considering the government's majority on the committee. Each party will only be allowed to speak for five minutes on each clause under review.

"There is a fast-tracking here that is tantamount to sabatoge," NDP wheat board critic Pat Martin told the committee.

Martin had been critical of the process before the meeting even started on Wednesday, expressing disdain earlier in the day over hearing from witnesses in the "stealthful darkness" after only a few hours of debate in the House of Commons.

"We have very few legislative tools we can do to plead our case, to tell you the truth," Martin said. "Civil society is going to have to speak out if they want to save the Canadian Wheat Board."

Lawsuits pending

Earlier Wednesday, David Anderson, the parliamentary secretary responsible for the wheat board, accused the NDP and Oberg of wanting to disrupt and delay the transition so much that farmers can't use the new system.

The wheat board's lawsuit against the federal government is but one of three lawsuits surrounding the fight over whether the monopoly should continue. These court proceedings could interfere with the government's intention to have an open market up and running in time for selling the 2012 Prairie wheat and barley crops.

In a response to the wheat board's lawsuit, a group of western grain producers are in turn suing the wheat board for using farmers' money to sue the government instead of focusing on marketing their crops.

The third court challenge, also against the government, has been initiated by a group called the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board. On Tuesday, the Council of Canadians and the Public Service Alliance of Canada announced they'll seek intervener status in this case, scheduled to return to court in Winnipeg on December 6.