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Election changes little on farm scene

The Conservative win in the Oct. 14 election brought little change to the farm scene in Parliament.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was re-elected with a comfortable margin in his western Saskatchewan riding, despite the national flap over his “cold cuts” comments.

Ritz’s main critics, Liberal Wayne Easter and the NDP’s Alex Atamanenko, also won in their ridings, as did most members of the Commons agriculture committee including chairman James Bezan in Manitoba’s Selkirk-Interlake riding.

Several aggie notables didn’t succeed in their bids to enter federal politics, including Bob Friesen, the former Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) president and Wawanesa, Man., farmer, running in Winnipeg’s Charleswood-St . James-Assiniboia riding.

Other notables shut out included former National Farmers Union (NFU) president Nettie Wiebe, running for the NDP in a Saskatoon riding; free trade opponent and organic farmer David Orchard, running for the Liberals in northern Saskatchewan; and CWB farmer-director Rod Flaman, running for the Liberals in a Regina riding.

Randy Hoback, a former chairman of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA), was an exception to that rule, winning the Saskatchewan riding of Prince Albert for the Conservatives who previously held it.

Rural hold

The results show the Conservatives still own the rural west and have also a firm grip on rural Ontario to boot.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn’t said yet when he will announce changes to his cabinet to replace three ministers who retired before the election. Most observers expect he will leave Ritz in the agriculture portfolio, as he’s well regarded by most farm groups except the NFU. Plus, dropping him because of comments he made in private might encourage other disgruntled civil servants to try to leak remarks ministers made in confidence.

One issue on which Harper must move is the inquiry into Maple Leaf Foods’ listeria outbreak, which he promised early in the campaign. The inquiry is due to report by March 15, which means he only has a few months to look into how listeria got into the company’s meats and how long it took federal agencies to respond to warnings from Toronto’s public health department.

Farm groups called on the Harper government to pick up key farm issues right away. CFA, for one, is looking for action on enabling provincial flexibility in business risk management programs, as promised by both the Conservatives and Liberals, said Laurent Pellerin, the CFA’s first vice-president.

The federation also wants a continuing commitment to Canada’s balanced trade position in international trade agreement; compensation for farmer contributions for mitigating the effects of climate change; ongoing funding for on-farm food safety programs; and a public education program for “Product of Canada” food labelling.

NFU president Stewart Wells said there’s a lot of work for the government in agriculture. “Many farmers are in desperate circumstances because of low farm incomes, and there is growing concern over farm debt loads.”

Income safeguards

Farm debt in Canada has increased to more than $54 billion from $33.7 billion within the last decade, with nearly half that amount owed to federally chartered banks, he said.

“If the credit squeeze continues and asset values fall, many farmers may find themselves overextended in the spring at a time when they desperately need financing.”

The WCWGA wants the Harper government to act on its promise to give Prairie farmers grain-marketing freedom. Association chairman Mike Bast said, “We will be seeking immediate legislation to remove the CWB’s monopoly over western farmers.”

If the opposition tries to block changes to the CWB, the association wants the Conservatives to introduce a confidence motion on legislation to remove the CWB monopoly, he said. It also wants quick action on lower diesel fuel taxes, as Harper promised, and on improving the competitiveness of Canadian farmers.

“Certainly high farm input costs are a key concern,” Bast said. “We’ll be looking to the federal government to reduce the tax and regulatory burden, as well as ensuring barriers to imports of fertilizer, chemical and seed are reduced.”

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