Is This “Modernization?”

JOHN MORRISS

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

While appointments to the Canadian Wheat Board have traditionally been at a reasonable arm’s length from politics (at least until the director appointments were hijacked by the current government), it’s always been understood that things are different at the Canadian Grain Commission. Appointments have almost always been given to those with affiliations to the party in power, and if it changes, the commissioners are sent packing.

This is not to say that there have not been some excellent people in the job. Unfortunately, and in contrast to the U. S. where political experience is welcomed by the private sector, being active in Canadian politics tends to limit future career prospects. Rewarding qualified people who have stuck their neck out is not necessarily a bad thing.

That said, both Liberal and Conservative appointments have always tended to have one thing in common, that being the politician’s perpetual back-of-the-mind question. “Will this decision cost me votes?” Not that anyone’s voting, but that little nagging gene just won’t go away.

This presents a dilemma. For fear of losing votes, politicians hate telling anyone that they can’t do stuff. The grain commission has one basic purpose – to enforce regulations. Grain commissioners hate enforcing regulations. That means telling people they can’t do stuff.

Taking millions of tonnes of grain from across the Prairies and packaging it up so every cargo of a certain grade is the same as the next? Big hassle. Requires that everyone follow a certain grade standard, and if they don’t, prosecute. Messy.

Making sure grain companies are licensed and bonded so that farmers get paid? Big hassle. Have to keep track of all those numbers. And some little upstart company might complain that it’s being kept from competing with the big boys because the grain commission is imposing all these nasty regulations. Like Econ Consulting and Klemmer Seeds. Ends up with embarrassing cases with someone taking the commission to court, not the other way round. Messy.

Grain elevator manager unlawfully telling farmers he won’t accept a delivery if the grade is appealed? Since the commission never seems to prosecute, that must never happen.

Then there’s enforcing KVD, which those with super high-yielding varieties for sale claim is restricting them from selling them to farmers. Who likes telling farmers they can’t have higher yields, even if the claims aren’t true? Messy.

The upshot of all this is that anytime there’s a chance to weasel out of enforcing a regulation, grain commissioners are on it like a dog on a bone.

The politicization of the grain commission reached new heights last year with the appointment of former Reform MP and Saskatchewan Party leader Elwin Hermanson as chief commissioner. Again, with all due respect to his political experience, that doesn’t exactly qualify him as an expert on the grain business. Yet within a couple of days of walking into his office in Winnipeg, he fired off an opinion piece supporting the government’s proposed amendments to the Canada Grain Act. You’d think he might want to tour the building and have lunch with a few grain company officials first.

The act in question, recently renewed as Bill C-13, will eliminate CGC inward inspection at terminals. There are pros and cons to that. Perhaps it’s an extra expense that could be avoided, but it’s hard to assess against the background of the commissioners never seeing a regulation they would rather not enforce. And now that the government – against the advice of the industry – has terminated KVD, the grain companies want to keep it.

Bill C-13 will also eliminate the commission’s obligation for licensing and bonding. Farmers seem to care much, given the mild reaction from farm groups. They should.

It now appears that the opposition parties will block C-13, which last week led to Conservative MP David Anderson firing off a release about how they were blocking the grain act’s “modernization,” the same word used by Chief Commissioner Hermanson in his opinion piece last year.

That was ironic given that his prime minister was at the same time in London signing on to a G-20 agreement to reregulate the financial system with more government oversight. Apparently that’s a good idea for the rest of the economy, but not for the multibillion-dollar Prairie grain business, where the government wants to get rid of it and call it “modernization.”

Farmers: this is about a system to ensure you don’t have to leave the elevator with fistfuls of 10s and 20s to be sure you’ll get paid. Right now, you have a low-cost, government-backed system that works fine (and doesn’t only pay 30 cents on the dollar, contrary to the astonishing claim Minister Ritz made to a radio reporter). It would work even better if those in charge gave it some teeth. Do you really want to give this up?

The opposition has “hoisted” C-13 for now, but if it ever comes back, you had better make sure it’s not your unlucky number. [email protected]

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