Since the first Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) directors’ election in 1998 candidates have declared themselves “for” or “against” retaining single-desk selling.
In this year’s contest, five of the candidates running in Districts 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 are mum on the question: Henry Vos, Brian Otto, Vicki Dutton, Terry Youzwa and Ernie Sirski, leaving their position open to speculation.
Observers from both sides of the debate agree those five candidates favour ending the single desk.
“To varying degrees they lean towards marketing choice,” Blair Rutter, policy manager for the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA), which supports ending the single desk, said in an interview.
John De Pape, a consultant and blogger critical of the CWB, wrote that “it’s pretty clear that the single desk would be targeted at least by those (candidates) who have not stated their position on the single desk.”
He also listed the five as supporting change “even if it means changes to the single desk.”
Many of the five are on the record as having supported “marketing choice” in the past. For example, Vos of Fairview, Alta., said just that when he ran in District 1 in 2006 and was elected. This time round, he says this:
“I support many of the things the Canadian Wheat Board does, but there are a number of things it does that I do not support, things I think take value away from farms. These are the things I am attempting to change. Many of these changes can take place inside the current structure. I have avoided using the words single desk and monopoly because the issues around this to me are more complex than a simple yes or no answer would satisfy.”
So did Dutton of Paynton, Sask., when she ran in the last election in District 5. (In an interview last week she also said she favours a dual market.)
And Brian Otto of Warner, Alta., who is running in district 3, says farmers know where he stands. He’s the president of the Western Barley Growers Association – a longtime advocate of open markets. So if people, at least those following farm issues, know where the candidates stand, why won’t the five say when asked?
suspect it’s a strategy to win more votes, which if successful, could shift the balance of power on the board. Eight of the CWB’s 15 directors support the single desk. If that number drops by even one after this year’s election, the balance of power could shift.
“Farmers have consistently come out in favour of a strong single desk,” said Bill Gehl, a Regina-area farmer and chair of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, which supports the single desk. “Maybe they’ve seen they can’t win (by opposing the single desk) and they’re trying to adjust their tactics.”
Gehl doesn’t think it will work. “Farmers aren’t ignorant,” he said.
The CWB’s marketing mandate is not an issue farmers are asking about, Otto said in an interview.
“Not once in all my meetings did the question you’re asking come up,” he said. “It’s all about the marketing performance of the Canadian Wheat Board.
“Producers are not happy. They feel the board should be doing a better job than what they are and so those are the issues I’m addressing in my campaign.”
Ot to said he wouldn’t answer a reporter’s emailed questions because they were “too simplistic.”
“I’ve seen your articles and quite frankly you’re not unbiased and I have a problem with that and I’m just not going to answer the questions,” he said.
Otto said directors’ views on the single desk are irrelevant because it’s the law. The federal government wants to change it but can’t because it doesn’t have a majority in the House of Commons.
Under the CWB Act before any grain can be added or removed from the single desk it must be approved through legislation. But first the minister of agr icul ture must have consulted the CWB’s board and farmers must have approved the change through a plebiscite.
According to Rutter, the government and the CWB’s board of directors have the power to make changes to bring about a de facto open market, although it would likely be challenged in the courts by single-desk supporters.
“You can bet your bottom dollar if these five candidates… were all elected… they would come out of the closet and would say ‘oh, by the way we support the open market or a dual market or marketing choice or whatever you want to call it,’” said Stewart Wells, a single-desk candidate running in District 3.
“The single desk is the signal most important linchpin of the whole wheat board operation and that’s why it’s so disingenuous that somebody would try to go through the wheat board election process and try to avoid that discussion.
“It’s the classic hidden agenda.”
– BLAIR RUTTER