Under threat of legal action, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz hastily retracted widely circulated comments he made last week accusing CWB chair Allen Oberg of stealing farmers money.
This word was only used figuratively and I retract it, Ritz said in a statement emailed to reporters Nov. 12. It remains our government s belief that money from the pool accounts is being used for purposes outside the CWB s mandate.
Oberg had earlier said he is considering suing Ritz for slander after the minister repeatedly through the week referred to Oberg as stealing from farmers for using CWB funds on an advertising campaign to fight the federal government s decision to end the board s single- desk monopoly without a plebiscite.
My good friend Mr. Oberg is wasting farmers time and money on a baseless court case and reckless propaganda. Just last week it was reported that he had stolen from farmers pockets once again, Ritz told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce Nov. 9.
Later in the week, his office emailed these statements to reporters regarding the board s purchase of lakers: In addition to never consulting farmers before he dipped his sticky fingers into the pool accounts to make this irresponsible and reckless purchase, Mr. Oberg will have to justify to farmers why the lakers will continue to be paid for from the pool accounts as he always intended.
In addition to the lakers, perhaps he could also explain why he s stolen an additional $1.4 million from farmers to advertise his baseless accusations in eastern Canadian media outlets.
Oberg said the statements underscore the contempt Ritz holds for farmers and elected board members.
Irresponsible statements made yesterday by Minister Ritz, directly accusing me of stealing farmers money, are clearly slanderous and unworthy of a cabinet minister.
This is another glar ing example of the bullying tactics that this government consistently employs, Oberg said. My sole motivation is to act in the best interests of the farmers of Western Canada of which I am one. The minister has grossly twisted this by issuing a defamatory statement to serve his own political agenda.
Ritz s plan to pass Bill C-18, the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, before yearend, is already facing court challenges, which he told his audiences in Western Canada, he is taking seriously.
Well, I m not a lawyer but any lawyer will tell you a court challenge is always serious, he told the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce Nov. 8. It s a lot like the weather there s always a 10 per cent of anything.
The Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board will argue in Federal Court Dec. 6 Bill C-18 is illegal because the government is removing the Canadian Wheat Board s single desk without farmers approval as expressed through a plebiscite.
The wheat board has launched a similar court challenge.
Ritz said the government believes its actions are legal.
Certainly a few years ago when we tried to just move on barley (through an order-in-council) the court had hearings and said we have to bring in legislation, well we ve done that, Ritz said. No government can stop a future government from changing legislation. There can be no poison pills.
Opponents of C-18 complain the bill is being rammed through Parliament, but Ritz said during the debate he hasn t heard anything new regarding the wheat board s single desk versus an open market in the last six months.
It s time to move on and get market certainty and clarity, he said. But we re holding our breath too.
As soon as the bill receives royal assent, the wheat board s eight remaining farmer-elected directors will be fired. The five government-appointed directors will oversee the new voluntary board. Ritz said he hopes the current appointed directors will continue to serve to provide continuity.
Certainly they re well received and well respected in the work that they re doing, he said. If they ve decided they ve had enough at that point we will replace them as need be.
The government will cover the costs of winding down the old wheat board, including paying severances to terminated employees. First on the hit list is the communications department.
The growth departments in the existing wheat board in the last few years has been communications and public relations and certainly they are on the sliding seats on the way out of town, Ritz said. But there are some tremendous analysts and marketers and other people there that we would like to keep. At the same time some of the larger line companies are head hunting right now too because they know they ll have more product to market.
The biggest financial hit farmers face as the board moves into an open market is the $65 million the board is contracted to pay for the purchase of two lake freighters, according to Ritz.
Wheat board chair Allen Oberg says the government should pay for the boats, including the board s first instalment of $11 taken from the current crop year s pool because in the absence of the single desk, farmers can t capture the profits from the board owing them.
While answering questions in Red Deer, Ritz said the government would consider all the board s transition costs.
We also don t want to start out the new entity with a mortgage that you look at and say, I m not going to pay that, he said. You know, we want to give them every chance to succeed.
In the meantime, there s no reason the board shouldn t be operating as it usually does, Ritz said. Later a government official pointed out the board has stopped offering in the 2012- 13 crop year its Wheat Storage Program, Churchill Storage Program and Producer Payment Options.
The board says there s too much uncertainty over the fate of the CWB after Aug. 1, 2012. However, the board is still actively marketing, a board official said last week.
In addition to the lakers, perhaps he (Oberg) could also explain why he s stolen an additional $1.4 million from farmers to advertise his baseless accusations in eastern Canadian media outlets.