New Liberal government has lots on its ag ‘to do’ list

Improving grain transportation and trade top the new Liberal government’s agricultural agenda.  Photo: Allan Dawson

Manitoba Co-operator – Grain transportation and trade top of the new Liberal government’s agricultural agenda, says veteran Saskatchewan MP and former agriculture minister Ralph Goodale.

Other priorities include determining if farm aid programs are adequate, investing in infrastructure to protect soil and water and refocusing the government’s role in scientific research.

The Canadian Wheat Board is not coming back, but the Liberal government will dig into its apparent ‘giveaway’ to a foreign company and perhaps release the CWB’s 2012-13 annual report and financial statements that former agricuture minister Gerry Ritz kept secret.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet, including an agriculture minister, were to be sworn in Nov. 4 — two days after this week’s Manitoba Co-operator went to press.

Grain transportation is a priority, Goodale said in an interview last week, noting that a review of the Canadian Transportation Act led by former cabinet minister David Emerson is supposed to be done by the end of the year.

“This presents an opportunity for significant improvements in the system. It will be important to seize that opportunity to put in place a system that will not be prone to the kind of disaster that happened in 2013-14.”

Canada produced a record crop that year, but a backlog developed in railway grain shipments. Farmers and grain companies blamed the railways for not investing in enough surge capacity; the railways blamed the big crop and the coldest winter in 100 years.

Although the new government will consider Emerson’s recommendations, it’s on record as supporting subjecting the railways to commercial penalties for failing to fulfil service agreements with grain shippers. That’s just normal contractual law, Goodale said.

“This is the only case where it doesn’t apply,” he added. “What seems astounding is that the railways seem astounded when you say the basic principles of business and contract law should apply to them.”

It’s also time to calculate the railways’ costs of shipping grain — something last done in 1992, Goodale said. The formula used to set the railways’ maximum revenue entitlement is based on those 1992 costs, adjusted annually for inflation. However, it’s widely believed by farm groups that many railway costs have declined due to increased rail and grain-handling efficiency, resulting in farmers paying much more than intended.

“It is reasonable I think, to update the arithmetic,” Goodale said.

TPP review

The new government is also keen to review the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement before endorsing it.

While former minister Gerry Ritz was widely praised for his many trade missions to boost Canadian farm exports, Goodale isn’t impressed.

“The previous government seemed content to go from one trade negotiation to the other without a heck of a lot of followup,” he said.

“Once you’ve got the market access then you’ve got to make use of it and this government has not had a marketing or sales strategy. The end result is we’ve had 55 months of trade deficits under the Harper government.”

Ritz’s efforts lack the “pizzaz” of the Team Canada trade missions conducted by former Liberal government, according to Goodale.

The Conservative government cut farm program budgets and made it harder to trigger payments from AgriStability. Goodale said the new government will consult with farm groups and the provinces to see if the programs can meet farmers’ needs when commodity prices fall.

Some of the Liberal government’s infrastructure spending is intended for natural resources infrastructure, Goodale said.

“With the onset of more and more consequences from climate change we are very likely to have more frequent and more severe cycles of floods and droughts,” he said.

“The frustration is some years you have a flood and a lack systems to control it or save it and then next year you have a drought.”

More basic research

The Liberals plan big changes to government scientific research, including in agriculture. There will be more basic, curiosity research, not just applied research tied to a commercial outcome, Goodale said.

“Science within the Government of Canada is totally messed up and the scientific community within the government is obviously muzzled and intimidated,” he said. “The whole thing needs to be examined from top to bottom to get science policy right.

“There’s a lot of work to do to repair the damage that has been done.”

Although the Liberals won a strong majority Oct. 19, outside of Atlantic Canada they have few rural seats. Asked how the new government will avoid becoming city-centric Goodale replied: “We’ll just have to work very hard at it.

“The prime minister elect has made it very clear that he wants to be a prime minister for all of Canada and we’ll work very hard to achieve that.”

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