The House of Commons is debating an NDP motion Tuesday that calls on the government to halt its plan to dismantle the wheat board's exclusive rights to market Prairie wheat and grain.
Manitoba MP Niki Ashton's motion, up for debate on a scheduled Opposition day when her NDP caucus has an opportunity to set the agenda, calls on the government to respect that "farmers have a democratic right to determine the future of their own supply management tools and marketing boards."
The motion would set aside the same legislation the House voted in favour of sending to committee at second reading on Monday night.
Ashton's motion calls for a "full and free" vote to be held to determine what Prairie farmers want for the existing Canadian Wheat Board's "single desk" system, through which all wheat and barley grown inside defined boundaries in Western Canada must be sold.
"That, in the opinion of the House, farmers have a democratic right to determine the future of their own supply management tools and marketing boards; and recognizing this right, the House calls on the government to set aside its legislation abolishing the Canada Wheat Board (CWB) single desk and to conduct a full and free vote by all current members of the CWB to determine their wishes, and calls on the government to agree to honour the outcome of that democratic process."
"How can they stand in opposition to the idea that farmers should be deciding their destiny?" Ashton asked, kicking off the debate on Tuesday morning.
The government has not conducted a vote to determine if a majority of farmers who sell their grain through the existing wheat board want its monopoly removed. The wheat board itself conducted a plebiscite this summer on the topic, with a small majority voting in favour of the existing single desk system.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has dismissed the wheat board's plebiscite results as an "expensive survey" and less representative of what Prairie farmers want than the fact that Conservative MPs were elected in rural ridings across Western Canada on a platform to dismantle the board's monopoly.
Ashton denounced the Harper government's "arrogance" in claiming to know what western Canadian farmers want based only on the results of the last general election.
Farmers to lose role
The wheat board has functioned as a "shared governance" organization since legislation in 1998 transformed it from a Crown corporation to one in which farmer-elected representatives hold the majority of the seats on its board.
The government's legislation would dismiss the 10 farmer-elected board members, leaving in place only the five government-appointed members.
The remaining board members would be tasked with developing a viable plan for the wheat board to continue to function as a voluntary grain pool organization. During this transition period, the government would continue to finance some of the board's business.
In five years' time, if the government does not agree that a viable plan is in place for the board's future as a voluntary entity in an open market system, the board could be shut down entirely.
During the debate on Tuesday, Ritz called his government's plans "democracy at work," saying that the NDP's "fear mongering" will not stop the "marketing freedom" Conservatives promised in the last election. Ritz also warned that opposition "scare tactics" could "destabilize a multi-billion-dollar western grain industry" and "undermine the livelihoods of thousands of grain farmers of all sizes."
Ritz said the marketing conditions of 2011 are "not similar to those of 1943" when the mandatory wheat board system began. "Refusing to adapt and evolve is not a recipe for success, but a guarantee of long-term stagnation," he said.
"Right now farmers are voting with their air seeders and their trucks" by growing other crops, Ritz said, noting that when oats were taken out of the wheat board's marketing system in the late '80s, the total acreage of oats planted in Manitoba increased and new processing plants were built as a result of the change.
The government believes new opportunities will be available for wheat and barley growers if this legislation passes. Ritz noted that for the first time ever, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange will be allowing Canadian grain to be used to settle futures contracts.
"The IntercontinentalExchange Futures Canada in Winnipeg has announced that its own spring wheat futures contract based in western Canada will be ready for trading as soon as the bill receives royal assent," Ritz added, calling these futures markets an "important risk management tool" that would soon be available to Canadian producers.
Motion likely doomed
The Conservative government is expected to use its majority to defeat the NDP motion and continue with its plans to transform the wheat board.
Previously, the government used time allocation to limit the amount of time the House of Commons would debate its legislation before the vote on second reading.
The bill has now been sent to a special legislative committee for review. Because Conservative MPs hold the majority on that committee, no significant delays are expected before the legislation is sent back to the House for a final vote.
On Tuesday in question period, Manitoba MP Kevin Lamoureux asked for the committee to hold meetings in Western Canada so grain farmers could appear as expert witnesses to share their views on the bill. Ritz said that wasn't necessary because government MPs hear from farmers every weekend when they return home to their ridings.
"That's what we do for fun," Ritz said, "and [farmers] continue to tell us get this job done."
Ritz hopes the wheat board legislation can clear the Senate and become law before the end of 2011, allowing farmers and other businesses involved in the Prairie grain industry to prepare for selling the 2012 wheat and barley crops on the open market.
On Monday, NDP MP Pat Martin asked the ethics commissioner to review potential conflicts of interest on the part of seven Conservative MPs who have personal or family business interests in Prairie grain farming.
One of the Tories Martin named was David Anderson, the parliamentary secretary responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board.
"If the government is going to allow government MPs who are in a conflict of interest to vote, why won't they let Prairie farmers vote on how they want to market their grain themselves?" Martin asked in question period on Tuesday.
Anderson was under fire separately on Monday when he was found to have posted an animated video on his website in which a fictional wheat board bureaucrat tells a young farmer character who wants to market his own crop to "slow down, young man. You are talking Eskimo."
National Inuit leader Mary Simon called it a racist slur.
In a written statement on Tuesday, Anderson said the video was removed as soon as he became aware of the offending language. However, the animation was still available in the site's video gallery on Tuesday afternoon.
"I was assured that the video had been removed," Ritz said when Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett asked for an apology. "If it hasn't, it will be coming down."
A previous version of this story has been amended to reflect the decision to send bill C-18 to a special legislative committee for review, instead of the standing committee on agriculture.Oct 28, 2011 2:49 PM ET