Binkley - A lost opportunity on the prairies


Wheat Board: A sorry excuse for a political debate

Small thinking destroys the potential for innovation

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The Canadian Wheat Board seems headed for extinction, a victim of small thinking by friends and foes.

The official cause of death will be legislation that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has promised to present in Parliament this fall. However, a major contributing factor will be the failure of the “friends” of the CWB to consider alternatives to its current structure.

They’re far more interested in proving their contention the Board can’t survive without its monopoly on wheat and barley sales. By the way, the biggest crop in Western Canada in recent years has been canola.

For decades, opposition to the monopoly has grown from a band of malcontents to encompass a significant chunk of Prairie farmers, probably between 15 to 20% of active farmers. They’re a bright, well-educated bunch of productive producers.

They’re still outnumbered by farmers who support the status quo, but there’s also a large group of growers who want the option of selling on their own and through the Board, known as dual marketing. This idea is dismissed as an illogical impossibility by the CWB supporters.

The beginning of the end came in 2006 when Prime Minister Harper’s advisers rejected a proposal for the development of alternative models for a monopoly-less CWB for farmers to consider. Instead, the bright lights forced then Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl to proceed with a plebiscite offering farmers the choice of the CWB as is, no board and dual marketing. The result showed how badly split Prairie farmers are. Dual marketing was the most popular option, and still is according to the CWB’s own polls, but it didn’t achieve a majority, trailed by the status quo around 33% and no borders in the 15% range.

Lacking a majority in Parliament and knowing the opposition would defeat any attempt to introduce legislation to replace the CWB Act with a new one, the Harper government stalled for five years. It did finally get an Ontario backbencher to introduce a private member’s bill, but no one took it seriously.

However, it didn’t do anything to promote a discussion of CWB alternatives.

Now the Tories have a majority and say that holding all the seats on the Prairies but two urban ridings gives them a green light to proceed. The NDP and the Liberals will fight the bill demanding that farmers be given a vote or the government respect the CWB’s plebiscite, which showed farmers support the CWB, but not by as much as might be expected. .

Ritz has already dismissed the expensive survey as he calls the CWB plebiscite. The government would insist on putting the three options on the ballot. The Board and the opposition would want a for or against it vote, without the dual marketing choice. Can’t have people voting for an illogical impossibility, even if best expresses their wishes. They would even argue over what constitutes a legitimate farmer.

The Conservatives signaled before the 2006 election that they would work to end the monopoly. Yet, the Board and its buddies sat on their hands, seemingly never expecting Harper to win a majority. Imagine, a government actually acting on its promises.

So we had five years when Prairie farmers could have kicked the tires on different ideas for replacing the CWB with a voluntary organization to market wheat and barley. Now, with a little more thinking, the new organization could have helped Canadian farmers export any other crop or product. But the Harper government is uncomfortable with public discussion of controversial topics, and, in this case, so were the CWB’s friends.

Following Ritz’s announcement about the legislation, the Grain Growers of Canada tried to get the CWB to discuss what it needed to remain in business. David Anderson, the minister’s parliamentary secretary, said back in May that the government would talk to the CWB, farm groups and the grain industry on the various issues associated with a voluntary Board. When it did, it was attacked.

That’s how small thinking destroys the potential for innovation. What should have been a meaningful debate about the future of an important institution was anything but.


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