The two months the Harper government spent recal ibrat ing its plans and priorities for Parliament translated into more of the same policies for agriculture and other resource industries.
In the throne speech at the start of the new session of Parliament, the government promised “to ensure the freedom of choice for which Western barley farmers overwhelmingly voted.”
In a later telephone news conference, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said “stay tuned” when asked whether the government would proceed with legislation to eliminate the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly over Prairie barley sales. He even appeared to hint that wheat could be on the table as well.
“Western farmers are asking for more than barley,” he said. A variety of western commodity groups keep pestering the Tories to live up to their promise of marketing freedom in the wake of a 2008 referendum that showed a majority of farmers wanted the option of selling their own barley.
It’s unlikely the Tories could get amendments to the CWB Act through Parliament with a majority government.
Ritz said the government will do a synopsis of the situation and decide what to do next.
Among other old chestnuts in the throne speech, the government promised “to support a competitive livestock industry and pursue market access for agriculture products.” It “will continue to defend supply management of dairy and poultry products.”
And in a 6,000-word document, it managed barely a nod toward food safety saying only it will “continue to strengthen Canada’s food safety system.”
In the telephone news conference, Ritz said the government will move forward with the 53 recommendations in the report on the deadly 2008 listeria outbreak.
Several of the proposals from special investigator Sheila Weatherill will require amendments to federal law but the minister would only say, “there is a potential for food safety legislation.” The government’s main interest was adding inspectors to the ranks of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as part of a $75-million plan it announced last summer.
The government also said it will help the forest sector find new markets and invest in new technologies and introduce legislation to reform Canada’s outdated system of fisheries management.
Governments have produced the latter on a regular basis during the past decade but no legislation has ever reached the floor of the Commons.
In the budget released the next day, the government promised $75 million to help beef packers be more competitive and $51.7 million to support the ongoing operations of the Canadian Grain Commission.
Ottawa plans to add $10 million to the Slaughter Improvement Program this year for new processing technologies and $25 million will go to aid plants that handle animals over 30 months of age. As well, $40 million will be available over the next three years to help packing plants introduce new technology for handling BSE risk material from cattle and to seek new uses for it.
Ritz told reporters after the budget was released that in addition to the financial support, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would work with the industry on reducing the costs of collecting and disposing of BSE risk material. “The United States is doing more with the specific risk material and we need to look at new technologies for processing it.”
He said the government was still discussing an industry request for a per head payment of $31.70 on cattle over 30 months of age to compensate for the costs imposed by Ottawa’s BSE rules.
The minister also said he hopes that once reforms for the grain commission are approved by Parliament, it will move to a position “where it can stand on its own” and not be dependent on regular government support.
Laurent Pellerin, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the budget doesn’t help livestock producers who are no longer eligible for support from AgriStability because they have reference margins that are too low after years of poor prices.
Ritz said the government is working on that issue and added that the debt-to-asset ratio among farmers is much lower than five or 10 years ago.