The government's legislation to make farmers' sales to the Canadian Wheat Board voluntary cleared another hurdle in the House of Commons Monday night, with MPs voting to send it to the next stage on its path through Parliament.

The vote on second reading of the bill moves it to committee, where MPs will hear witnesses discuss the legislation. It will then go back to the House for a third vote. If it makes it through the House, it moves on to the same process in the Senate.

Last week, the government moved time allocation, limiting the number of days for debate at this stage in the House.

NDP motion

Up for debate on Tuesday, moved by Manitoba MP Niki Ashton:

"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."

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says western Canadian farmers shouldn't be forced to sell their grain through the wheat board. NDP and Liberal MPs say the wheat board is important for keeping prices fair for farmers, and fear large agribusinesses will have an upper hand in dealing with farmers if the wheat board loses its monopoly.

Speaking in the House of Commons before question period on Monday, NDP wheat board critic Pat Martin suggested Conservative MPs with a personal or family business stake in prairie grain farming would be in a potential conflict of interest should they vote in favour of legislation to end the board's monopoly.

"If you believe the [agriculture] minister's supposition that Prairie farmers will make more money if they abolish the Canadian Wheat Board, then any Prairie farmer or any farmer in the Conservative caucus finds himself in a conflict of interest and therefore is both duty-bound and honour-bound to recuse himself not just from the vote … but from any debate that promotes the abolition of the wheat board," Martin said, referring to the conflict-of-interest code for MPs. "You can't have it both ways."

Martin has written to federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson about seven Conservative MPs representing rural Prairie ridings that he's identified as having a stake in the grain industry: David Anderson, Leon Benoit, Earl Dreeshen, Randy Hoback, Ted Menzies, Rob Merrifield and Kevin Sorenson.  

In a statement, Ritz said Martin's claim is inaccurate.

"Using this ridiculous analogy is equivalent to saying a taxpayer cannot vote on a budget because it decreases the taxes they pay," Ritz said.

Martin asked for an expedited ruling from the commissioner about whether these MPs must abstain on the final vote for the bill, which he expects "within a week or ten days."

The government says it wants the bill to become law before the end of the year.

Farmers jailed

Anderson, the parliamentary secretary responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, also spoke before question period, reminding the House that nine years ago 13 farmers served sentences in the Lethbridge Correctional Centre for crossing the U.S. border with their grain in open defiance of the board's system.

A reunion of those involved with the 1996 "Farmers for Justice" border crossings and subsequent legal battle is planned for Tuesday. 

"Their sacrifice will not be in vain," Anderson's statement concluded.

In Ottawa on Tuesday, the NDP plans to use its designated Opposition day — when the party can put an issue of its own choosing on the agenda in the House of Commons — to debate a motion calling on the government to "set aside its legislation abolishing the Canada Wheat Board single desk," conduct a fair vote to determine what farmers want and then "honour the outcome of that democratic process."

Wheat board officials are meeting Tuesday in Winnipeg to discuss a legal challenge to the proposed law.