“Everything this government does is with a view to destroying the wheat board so whether they make changes by opening the act or otherwise their end-game is always the same.”
– STEWART WELLS
Farmers divided over the Canadian Wheat Board’s (CWB) role can agree on one thing: the rules for electing directors and the role of the election co-ordinator need to be clarified.
With another round of elections pending this fall, this time in odd-numbered districts, and problems that surfaced during the 2008 elections still unresolved, many are asking why none of the 14 recommendations of a government-appointed review panel in 2005 have been implemented.
The federal government says it’s still under discussion. “Discussions are ongoing and we’re committed to making sure we get the best outcome for western Canadian farmers,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in an emailed response to the question.
Concerns about CWB elections have been raised since they started in 1998 when the federal government turned control of the marketing agency over to a 15-member board made up of 10 elected farmers and five government appointees.
During the last election in 2008, election co-ordinator Ian Craven of Myers Norris Penny said he couldn’t investigate alleged breaches in the election rules.
And when he did rule someone broke the rules, Craven appeared powerless to force them to comply, even though regulations under the CWB Act state it’s the election co-ordinator’s job to ensure fair CWB elections.
In an interview almost a year ago the board’s corporate secretary Deborah Harri acknowledged changes in the election process are needed. The CWB presented Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz with a list of recommendations last spring, including a request that the election co-ordinator’s role be strengthened.
Representatives from the National Farmers Union (NFU), Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) agreed changes were needed following the 2008 election.
“There needs to be some clarity brought to the regulations,” said Blair Rutter, policy manager with the WCWGA.
His association registered as a third-party intervener in 2008 but didn’t submit a report to the election co-ordinator listing the names of those who donated $100 or more to the WCWGA’s CWB election campaign. The election co-ordinator said the WCWGA failed to comply with the rules. But Rutter said the association complied by offering the information to the co-ordinator so long as it was not made public. Rutter said its donors fear CWB retribution. Rutter said in an interview last week that if the regulations clearly spelled out that the information is to be made public, the WCWGA would comply.
The WCWGA and NFU want CWB elections conducted by Elections Canada so they would be clearly independent – not seen as tainted by the board’s or government’s involvement as some fear now.
Since Elections Canada’s mandate doesn’t include CWB
elections, the WCWGA says an independent election commission should be appointed with its own budget. The review panel recommended the same thing.
In the 2008 election, five western Conservative MPs sparked controversy when they mailed letters to CWB voters urging them to vote for candidates opposed to single-desk selling. Critics, including the NFU, argued the MPs should have registered and reported as third-party interveners.
Election co-ordinator Craven said in an interview last March the rules he has to work with aren’t clear on whether MPs or the federal government should be seen as third-party interveners.
Whether the MPs actions were legal or not, KAP president Ian Wishart said they were inappropriate. “I hope the MPs stay out of it and not make the mistake of doing it again,” he said in an interview last week.
KAP would like the election process clarified, but Wishart said given the government’s enmity towards the CWB he’s nervous about the government opening the CWB Act.
So is Wells.
“Everything this government does is with a view to destroying the wheat board so whether they make changes by opening the act or otherwise their end-game is always the same,” Wells said. “We just have to wait and see what new dirty tricks they come up with.”
While the election process could be improved, Wells blames Ottawa for setting the tone by illegally trying to change the CWB’s mandate through cabinet instead of Parliament and by changing the voters’ list during the election. When the government breaks the rules others feel they can too, he said.
Only farmers who produce at least 300 tonnes of grain a year should get to vote, Rutter said. That way farmers with a vested interest in grain marketing are calling the shots.
With just seven months until the CWB election period begins, Rutter said there’s still enough time for Ottawa to make changes.
“You’re seeing some agreement on all sides there should be some clarity around the rules for the wheat board elections,” he said. “Given that, I’d like to think there would be support for some amendments through in time for the next election.” [email protected]