Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Listening to the farmers on the Wheat Board

The results of the plebiscite are in:
Tens of thousands of Western Canadian farmers have sent a clear message to Ottawa, demanding the CWB single-desk marketing system be retained.

Results of the CWB's plebiscite, released today, show a strong majority of farmers want to maintain their ability to market wheat and barley through a single-desk system. Sixty-two per cent of respondents voted in favour of retaining the single desk for wheat and 51 per cent voted to retain it for barley. A total of 38,261 farmers submitted mail-in ballots in the plebiscite, a participation rate of 56 per cent - on par with the last three federal elections and higher than many municipal and provincial elections.

"Farmers have spoken. Their message is loud and clear, and the government must listen," said Allen Oberg, chair of the CWB's farmer-controlled board of directors. "Western Canadian producers have voted to keep their single-desk marketing system for wheat and barley. They cannot be ignored.

"We will not sit back and watch this government steamroll over farmers. We are going to stand our ground and fight for farmers."
It's going to be quite a fight, from all appearances, now that this result has come in. The farmers are on record. While there are critics of the plebiscite, it's not clear what their issues were in terms of the process. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's reaction? "This is a non-binding survey, not a plebiscite," Ritz told CBC News Monday on the program Power & Politics with Evan Solomon. Not sure that's a big winner in the eyes of the public, splitting hairs and all. The results will carry a lot of moral suasion, despite the government's talking points.

Further, there is a Federal Court proceeding that will be going ahead on the government's decision to just do away with the legislation governing the Wheat Board without following the existing legislation. That is, without listening to the farmers via a plebiscite, as is required.

Also adding to the mix today, an op-ed in the Globe by a trade lawyer who essentially argues that the Harper government is being negligent in the way it is handling the Wheat Board's future. If the government is intent on getting rid of the Wheat Board, there are implications that should be considered under World Trade Organization and NAFTA rules. Primarily, he argues that the government has played a weak hand by not getting anything from the Americans or Europeans (who we are discussing a trade deal with). For example, he writes:
The question is, why should Canada make these changes unilaterally, largely to the benefit of international grain companies and to the applause of U.S. politicians, without negotiating some quid pro quo with the Americans? Why voluntarily give up a valuable bargaining chip that can be used with the U.S. and other trading partners without securing something in return to benefit Canadian farmers?
Additionally, he points out that it's difficult to resurrect such an institution under WTO rules once you've done away with it. Which is why Ralph Goodale would have said this yesterday: "The CWB is a farmer-controlled, $6-billion business, and if it is destroyed, it can never be restored..." The op-ed does raise some issues that undermine the government's competence on the issue and that haven't really been played up to date, so it may have some impact on the argument.

Primarily though, the fact that farmers themselves have said no to the government's plan provides the most compelling reason for the government to listen. Harper said this just a few weeks ago: "We remain the government because we maintain the confidence of the Canadian population. That involves listening to the population and involves listening to the opposition," he said. Was he listening yesterday?