“It certainly wasn’t what was intended from the panel report.”
– DAVID ROLFE
If farmers are confused whether they’ll get a vote in Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) elections this fall, they aren’t alone.
Media, farm organizations, and maybe even the minister of agriculture, have been confused too.
Ottawa tabled Bill C-27, the Canadian Wheat Board Payments and Election Reform Act in the House of Commons, May 14. The straightforward part of the bill proposes to speed up approvals for higher initial and adjustment payments.
The confusion, controversy, and according to one critic, subterfuge, is over a subtle change shifting voter eligibility from those who deliver grain to the board to those who grow it.
If C-27 becomes law as it is written, farmers who grow at least 40 tonnes of the seven crops listed in the CWB Act (wheat, oats, barley, rye, flaxseed, rapeseed and canola) in the current or previous two crop years are eligible for a ballot.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says the changes are meant to stop retired and hobby farmers from voting. But it also means farmers who don’t market through the CWB would get a ballot.
The government’s release erroneously states the approach is based on what the CWB Election Review Panel recommended in 2005. However, the review panel specifically tied the 40-tonne provision to deliveries, not production.
The distinction has resulted in confusion.
Several media outlets reported voter eligibility is based on farmers delivering at least 40 tonnes to the CWB. Some farm groups are saying that too.
“Bill C-27 would reduce the eligible voters’ list to only those producers who sell at least 40 tonnes of grain to the Canadian Wheat Board,” the Grain Growers of Canada, which supports C-27 and an open market, said in its release.
When a reporter asked Ritz on the day of the announcement whether the new rule was 40 tonnes delivered, he replied: “We’re talking delivered here.”
When questioned later, he said in an email: “It’s based on production… “
The difference between delivered and produced is not lost on David Rolfe, one of the three farmers who sat on the CWB Election Review Panel. The panel recommended voter eligibility be based on 40 tonnes of grain delivered
to the CWB to ensure voters are “actual” grain producers with a stake in how the CWB is run, he said in an interview May 20.
“It (what the federal government is proposing) certainly wasn’t what was intended from the panel report,” said Rolfe, a retired farmer and former president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP).
“It’s a fairly subtle difference they (the government) put to it, but the implications are fairly far reaching when it comes to who can actually have a vote and who actually should have a vote.
“If you’re a customer of the wheat board then you have an interest in the future of the wheat board obviously. Even if you grow 40 tonnes you may have never had a (CWB) permit book. You may just be a bystander and not have a true interest in the business.”
That view is shared by the seven CWB directors who voted against a CWB board of directors’ resolution to support Bill C-27. However, it still carried and is now policy. (See sidebar.)
The seven – all supporters of the CWB retaining its single-desk marketing powers – said in separate interviews they voted on principle.
“The big thing for me is democracy,” said District 7 director Kyle Korneychuk of Pelley, Sask. “We’re allowing people who don’t even use the board to elect the directors.
“Do we let pea growers vote in the canola elections? It’s ludicrous.”
District 9 director Rod Flaman of Edenwold, Sask., predicted the government will raise the threshold in the future.
“The people who are supporting this 40-tonne minimum are hoping it will change the outcome of the wheat board elections,” he said.
It’s a slippery slope that could turn into a weighted ballot, warned District 4 director Bill Woods of Eston, Sask. “If 40 tonnes gets you a vote then 80 tonnes should get you two.”
The panel recommended 14 improvements to CWB elections, said District 9 director Bill Nicholson from Shoal Lake.
“It bothers me that the government has singled out this one very divisive issue that disenfranchises farmers with a legitimate stake in elections but have not yet addressed some of the concerns that have been raised over and over again,” he said.
Among the concerns is the role of the election co-ordinator. The election co-ordinator’s job is to see CWB election rules are followed, but during the 2008 election he took no action when open-market candidates failed to report their expenses.
Including changes to speed CWB adjustment payment approvals in the bill was just a “carrot” to get the CWB directors to support it and would’ve been a stick if they hadn’t, Woods said.
If the government is serious about speeding adjustment approvals it could do it in a separate bill, which is more likely to receive speedy approval in Parliament, said District 10 director Bill Toews of Kane.
It has been speculated the new rule could knock 29,000 farmers off the voters’ list across all 10 districts.
In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the government ordered that only farmers with permit books who delivered to the CWB get ballots automatically. The rest would have to apply along with farmers who didn’t produce CWB grains. Despite Ottawa’s intervention eight farmer-elected directors continued to support the single desk, and two oppose it.
Stewart Wells of the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board suspects what appears to be confusion was a deliberate strategy to mislead. While many, including Wells, opposes a production threshold, he agrees with the panel that only farmers doing business with the CWB should vote. [email protected]