Canadian Wheat Board prepares for corporate takeover
Foreign multinational could assume control without reimbursing Canadian farmers, taxpayers
They called it "Marketing Freedom Day": Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in a Saskatchewan field and vowed that Prairie grain farmers would "never, never again" suffer at the hands of the Canadian Wheat Board.
What the politicians weren't saying in 2012, when the monopoly that controlled where farmers could sell their product sank into the horizon, was that the liberation wouldn't stop there.
Farmers and Canadian taxpayers will soon be completely free of the wheat board's assets — but not with a conventional sale.
Under a sort of reverse-nationalization plan now taking shape behind closed doors, a private-sector investor will assume control without reimbursing the federal treasury for assets Canadians paid for, or at least indirectly financed.
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Little is known about the board's current financial health, because Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz exercises power given to him in 2011 to withhold information "detrimental to commercial interests."
A report Ritz submitted to Parliament last July contained no financial statements. Many big players in the international grain business aren't publicly traded.
How did this happen?
Parties involved in the talks are bound by confidentiality agreements.
The board's website says it is "fast-tracking" and "intends to beat that deadline."
With an uncertain future, farmers may be reluctant to sell it their grain. Post-monopoly, CWB has needed help from larger grain companies.
You can get cash from the sale of something, or you can get a return over the years as the economy grows.- Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz
The board wants a large, international player as its majority partner. Any investment from that partner will remain within the newly privatized company it controls.
And grain farmers participating in a new farmer equity plan will have only a minority stake.
Fast-tracking could also see a deal before the next federal election. But this is not the sort of privatization that helps balance government books.
"There's no rush," Ritz said last Thursday. "They're expediting the process on their own simply to get stability."
What's CWB worth?
No one's sure what kind of numbers figure in the talks.
A rejected bid by the Farmers of North America, a group of more than 3,000 Canadian farmer-investors, evaluated the business at between $250-300 million. (No reasons were given for declining this offer.)
A class-action lawsuit seeking leave to appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada next spring claims the value of CWB's cash and hard assets in 2011 was more than $200 million.
The CWB is still backstopped by government credit. The federal government provided it with nearly $350 million to help with transition costs.
When Ritz was asked in question period how proceeds of the privatization would be distributed, he said "there were no assets" in 2011.
But the CWB owns its headquarters in Winnipeg. It had ordered two Great Lakes freighters. It also owned some 3,400 rail cars, and Ritz says he's not aware that any have been sold.
There were no debts piling up over the years... "That's just bull- Stewart Wells, former farmer-elected wheat board director
Ritz told the Commons agriculture committee Thursday that the "supposed assets" were "heavily leveraged." The government helped farmers by taking these off their hands, he suggested.
Stewart Wells, a Swift Current, Sask. farmer who was a farmer-elected CWB director until he was dumped in 2011, disagrees.
He says the 2011-12 financial statements show no outstanding debts outside of the newly-purchased ships. Even that was relatively small — the board's cash contingency fund had three times that amount, he says.
"There were no debts piling up over the years," Wells says. "(Ritz) is trying to put that notion in farmer's minds."
"That's just bull."
Greg Meredith, assistant deputy minister for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's strategic policy branch, told the same committee after Ritz left on Thursday that CWB was meeting its financial commitments in borrowing against assets.
Ritz also told the committee the search for a partner is down to a "very short list."
Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland Company, said to be a serious contender, told CBC News that it doesn't comment on "rumours or speculation."
"The vast majority of grain buyers in Canada aren't Canadian now," Ritz says of control passing into foreign hands. "I'd leave that final decision up to the wheat board itself."
As minister, Ritz is responsible for the Conservative-appointed board's decision.
I don't expect anything to come back to farmers.- NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen
Saskatchewan Liberal Ralph Goodale says the lack of transparency differs from his approach to selling the government's final stake in Petro-Canada as finance minister, when every effort was made to get a good deal for taxpayers.
"From day one, they've hated this institution," the former Liberal minister for the wheat board says. "Dumping it off as a fire sale is bad business and just plain wrong in terms of public policy."
"I don't expect anything to come back to farmers."
Ritz argues there are different ways to get a return.
"You can get cash from the sale of something, or you can get a return over the years as the economy grows," he says. "That's more the long-term look that this government is interested in."
A privatized CWB was supposed to add a strong Canadian competitor to the market. But could a future partner carve up and sell it? Nothing appears to prevent that.
Goodale remembers the monopoly as a major complaint in Canada-U.S. trade negotiations.
"The government gave it away," he says. "For heaven's sake, get some value back from the Americans.
"They're just giggling."