Comment: On Crown Lands, we get what we ask for

Why is anyone surprised by the recent changes to Crown land allocation?

Modernization of Crown land access has unleashed the uncertainties of future access and casts doubt for producers regarding future investments.

The Oct. 10 front page of the Manitoba Co-operator read “Feeling Betrayed: Crown land tenants voice opposition” and the article describes a series of events that began at the Manitoba Beef Producers annual general meeting held in Brandon February 2017.

A resolution was presented to the convention demanding MBP lobby the provincial government to replace the points-based system of allocating grazing and forage leases with a more open and transparent system. The mover of the resolution made an impassioned presentation describing the points-based system as lacking in transparency, complicated, bureaucratic, involving a process that was difficult for applicants to understand and lacking in fairness.

I spoke against the resolution, reminding convention delegates that the points-based system had a number of attractive features. It gave an advantage to young producers, took into consideration off-farm income, considered proximity, considered herd size and required the leaseholder to own livestock to utilize the Crown land under lease or being applied for. Unit transfers were an important part of the system. Manitoba livestock producers had exclusive access to Manitoba Crown land grazing and forage leases while rental fees remained attractive. I advised delegates to be careful what they asked for. A market-driven system would not offer any respect for the various priorities available under the points-based system.

The resolution passed with strong support from convention delegates. Less than one per cent of the total Manitoba Beef Producers membership in convention attendance had directed the MBP president and elected directors to lobby the provincial government to replace the allocation of Crown lands leases through a points-based system with a market-driven system. In the same time frame the newly elected Conservative Manitoba government had identified its priorities as reducing red tape, shrinking the civil service and lowering the number of provincial boards and commissions. The MBP proposal met or exceeded all of the provincial government’s stated objectives. It was a love-in.

The drafting of a new Crown lands policy began immediately. Consultations were by invitation only. The chair of the Appeal Tribunal and I attended two consultation sessions and used our knowledge of the points-based system to move the various proposals from the theory stage of the discussion paper to consider the actual impacts on producers. Unfortunately our projection of negative impact and producer reaction was largely correct and ignored. The past president of MBP lavished praise on the process and the organization’s publication, Cattle Country failed to raise any serious alarm bells.

By the fall of 2018, an odd producer was becoming concerned, and by the 2019 MBP convention it was the subject of a resolution from District 6, which requested the whole process be delayed by a year, allowing producers time to become informed and engaged in the whole process. The presenter made a well-prepared and reasoned argument in support of the call. MBP’s current and past presidents both spoke against the resolution and it was defeated. MBP leadership wanted these changes, and wanted them now, not next year.

Modernization of Crown land access has unleashed the uncertainties of future access and casts doubts upon the wisdom of making future investments. The economic uncertainties of not knowing if you will be outbid for your Crown land sometime in the future may be affected by what I call Phase 2 of modernization. In a chance meeting with former provincial agriculture minister Ralph Eichler in December 2018, I inquired as to the possibility of Manitoba following Saskatchewan in privatizing Crown land. The minister indicated that this option was not open at the time due to outstanding land claims issues. Privatization of Crown land would remove the uncertainty of tenure. Buy in or bow out. Real estate agents and financial institutions would be most appreciative of such a development. MBP is also on record by previous convention resolutions supporting the privatization of Crown land.

The turmoil that has been unleashed upon the holders of Crown land leases is a direct byproduct of the actions and convention priorities of their own organization. Checkoff funds flow in, but were it not for a free lunch being offered at district meetings, producer attendees would be outnumbered by MBP staff, provincial government staff and perhaps media. Annual MBP conventions are poorly attended, complex issues are given superficial attention and critical analysis is not tolerated. The guiding principle at every MBP convention is the forces of the marketplace must be given a free hand to determine the structure of our industry.

The long shadow of BSE still lingers over us as does the effects of the 2011 and 2014 floods followed by declining prices post-2015 and the drought of the current season, followed by an early-winter storm. We were never in a position to change the course of most of these events. But that is not the case with Crown land modernization. Some will find fault with the current leadership of the MBP, without acknowledging that leadership has simply accomplished what was asked of it by convention delegates — end the points-based system of Crown land allocation.

We now have before us the best Crown lands allocation policy that money and marketplace worshippers can supply. Let the bidding begin.

We are about to get — and own — exactly what we asked for.

Fred Tait farms nears Rossendale, Manitoba and is the former regional vice-president for Manitoba of the National Farmers’ Union.

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