Ag Spending Debate A Chippy One

Other than in the disjoined repartee of question period, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, like his predecessors, is rarely called to account in the Commons for the spending programs and priorities of his department.

That usually happens at the agriculture committee, which receives little attention from the mainstream news media on Parliament Hill.

But on May 14, MPs spent two hours in the Commons chamber probing the spending estimates of Agriculture Canada. It was carried on CPAC, the national parliamentary channel, for anyone needing a reprieve from hockey and reality shows.

Unfortunately in the chippy partisan nature of this Parliament, the session mostly consisted of the Conservatives applauding the government and the opposition complaining about it. It wasn’t a very enlightening session as nobody bothered to push Ritz on the details of the government’s programs.

The session did provide some kernels of information.

Liberal Farm Critic Wayne Easter noted the growing level of farm debt and the financial plight of hog producers. “The debt load is $55 billion and it has increased $4.1 billion since the government came to power, four times the amount of debt as the U. S. farmers.”

Meanwhile the Canadian Pork Council is waiting for an answer to its request for a $30-a-head payment to hog producers to offset low prices, Easter said.

Ritz noted the debt-to-asset ratio in Canada is up less than one per cent while land values have risen by an average of six per cent. In addition, the government brought in a cull sow program and opened more foreign markets to Canadian pork and pigs. He didn’t respond directly to the latest CPC request.

He did say that close to 100 applications have been received for funding under the $50 million slaughter capacity expansion loan program announced in the 2009 budget and the government has distributed about $600 million through AgriInvest.

The minister said he is also making a priority out of finding new customers for Canadian food products and “re-energizing some relationships with our long-standing trade partners. Over the past few months, we have successfully reopened beef access in Hong Kong, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We have worked to expand pulse markets in India. We are keeping up the pressure with trade missions to Morocco last month and other key markets in the coming weeks and months.”

Ralph Goodale, Liberal house leader and a former agriculture minister, blasted Ritz for allowing the PFRA to be submerged within Agriculture Canada. “Its name has been abolished and it is now folded into some other branch of the Department of Agriculture.”

Ritz insisted that PFRA has a lead role in the Agri-Environment Services Branch and its expertise is being used internationally on water conservancy and grassland management projects. “There is no such thing as the PFRA is dead and gone. It has been reborn even better than it was before.”

Goodale noted that PFRA’s “decision-making authority has essentially been removed from the headquarters operation in Regina and centralized in Ottawa. When PFRA people in Regina retire, their positions go vacant and they are not replaced. Attrition is indeed well underway. This is clearly the plan, to let it wither on the vine.”

Ritz says a director general does run the PFRA office in Regina. The agency’s community pasture and other programs will continue.

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