Farmers should be grateful that Bill C-13, a bill to amend the Canada Grain Act, failed to make it through Parliament. The bill was removed from consideration for second reading by a motion supported by all three opposition parties. The motion called for the bill to be brought back to Parliament in six months, but the likelihood is that this session of Parliament will be terminated before then, thus ending the path of this bill for now.
Bill C-13 has had a long history. It began as C-39, in December, 2007. It failed to make it through that Parliament and was reintroduced, in identical form, as C-13 in early 2009. Since reintroduction, it has been criticized by farm groups across Canada. That criticism arose, in part, because the government failed to change the bill at all, despite opposition from the ag community.
Throughout debate over the bill, the Conservative government has tried to sell it as an effort to “modernize” the Canadian Grain Commission. The agriculture minister, and others, have repeatedly said that the act hasn’t been amended for decades, but agriculture itself has changed immensely in that time. Hence, the act must be out of date.
The talk about modernization is clearly an attempt to influence farmers by using jargon. Modern is good after all. What farmers would not want to be modern? The government also talks about eliminating “unnecessary and costly regulations.” Sound good, eh? Farmers can ill afford anything unnecessary and costly.
But the bill fails dramatically to live up to its hype. Its proposed modernization includes ending the focus on furthering the interests of farmers. Rather than a regulator, the CGC becomes a service provider, working happily in the best interests of everyone. The bill ignores the fact that not everyone’s interests are the same, and not everyone has equal power. The Canada Grain Act has traditionally focused on producer interests for a reason – producers typically lack power as they face massive grain companies.
The unnecessary and costly regulation the bill intended to end consists of two things. One is getting rid of bonding for grain companies. This part of the act ensures farmers will get paid in case a grain company goes bankrupt. Despite Gerry Ritz’s comments that this hasn’t worked well, it has worked quite well for the most part. The government move to get rid of this requirement is based on the ideology of privatization, since there is no practical replacement for this bonding.
The Western Barley Growers Association was given huge sums of money by the government to develop an alternate mechanism, but has produced nothing concrete. Ritz appears not to understand the nature of laws when he says his government would not remove bonding until there was a substitute available. If C-13 had passed, bonding would be gone.
The second part of “unnecessary regulation” would have been the elimination of inward weighing and inspection at port. It is true that much of the grain that begins at an inland elevator ends at a terminal of the same ownership, but certainly not all. Take Prince Rupert for example. The terminal is owned by five grain companies. Do they trust each other enough to mingle their grain without independent inspection? Of course, there will be a need for inspection for things like producer cars.
The bill contemplated private inspectors. Would both sides accept the verdict? The CGC would still do inspections on outbound shipments, but the force of inspectors would be greatly reduced and much expertise lost.
The CWB would still require inward inspection for several reasons. It allows it to know what stocks are in the terminal, and allows it to capture a portion of the blending gains for farmers. Since CWB grain still constitutes the majority of grain exported, inward inspection would still be needed. Only the faces would change, with privatized inspection being the order of the day. Not much streamlining there.
Both COMPAS, the company that studied the issue for the feds, and the Standing Committee on Agriculture recommended the government set up an office of farmer advocacy, since the CGC would no longer have farmer protection as its main mandate, and since the government has apparently eliminated the assistant commissioners to the CGC by refusing to appoint any. The failure to set up this office has much to do with opposition party condemnation of the bill.
The Conservatives believe that getting rid of bonding, limiting farmer protections and reducing the scope of the CGC means they are modernizing it. Instead, it is just more of the same. Leave farmers to deal with the market, in an environment where they are divided and ultimately conquered. This might be the modern way, but it is hardly one we should aspire to.
Paul Beingessner writes from his farm near Truax, Sask.