Opposition stalls changes to Grain Act

The three federal opposition parties plan to sideline the Conservative government’s proposed changes to Western Canada’s grain inspection system and grain farmers’ security for deliveries.

Members of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois stated Thursday they plan to support a motion Friday to “hoist” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s Bill C-13, amendments to the Canada Grain Act, at second reading.

The motion, if passed, would delay second reading of Bill C-13 for six months, prevent it from going to the Commons agriculture committee and essentially move any further discussion of such amendments into the next session of Parliament.

Hoisting the bill would also require the government to re-draft it before it could be re-introduced. “This hoist motion will kill the bill. It will get rid of it. It moves it off the table, and that is what we want to do,” Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter said Thursday in the House of Commons.

Saskatchewan Conservative MP David Anderson, the government’s parliamentary secretary for the Canadian Wheat Board, in a release Thursday accused the opposition of “flip-flopping on their agreement to allow the legislation to go to the agriculture committee.”

But in the Commons Thursday, NDP ag critic Alex Atamanenko said the committee’s recommendations for further analysis and study of the bill’s proposals had not been carried out.

“Are we moving ahead without the proper groundwork?” he said. “Are we moving ahead without having conducted the necessary study and evaluation of what this could mean for the history of the grain industry in Canada?”

Also, BQ ag critic Andre Bellavance said the party has had “all kinds of meetings, correspondence, telephone calls, visits from different people affected by the changes to the mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission. That gave us a chance to weigh the pros and the cons of this bill. The cons are definitely adding up.”

Defending C-13, parliamentary ag secretary and Ontario MP Pierre Lemieux said in the Commons that by ending mandatory inward inspection and weighing requirements, the bill “would reduce unnecessary mandatory costs from the grain handling system and would work to build a lower-cost, more effective and innovative grain sector.”

As well, he said, “producers and industry would be able to apply to the Canadian Grain Commission for binding grade arbitration when they are not sure that the right grade has been assigned. The proposed changes would not reduce the capacity to ensure a dependable commodity to buyers of Canadian grain.”

“Major challenges”

But Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale warned in a release Thursday that “the Conservatives admit Bill C-13 has major challenges, particularly with respect to bonding… No viable alternatives have been found and going ahead with this legislation would leave farmers out in the cold.

“The Conservatives are shifting the balance in this bad legislation away from farmers and over to grain companies and railways,” Goodale said. “It reduces inspection services and eliminates bonding requirements without putting anything in their place.”

The government said it had seen the Grain Act’s bonding requirements as cost-prohibitive for new entrants in the grain business, as licensed companies must post bonds to cover the cash they owe farmers for delivered grain.

And while the Ottawa-based Grain Growers of Canada said in a release Thursday that it shares the opposition parties’ concerns about parts of C-13, specifically the end of bonding, “we disagree with using this (hoisting) approach to deal with the problem,” GGC president Doug Robertson, a farmer from Carstairs, Alta., said.

“We would like (C-13) to proceed to the (Commons) standing committee on agriculture where all of the political parties, including the government members, should have a hard look at whether the cost of bonding is limiting competition and what are the costs of alternatives, like insurance or a clearing house.

“Then, members of Parliament and farmers can make an informed choice on whether bonding, an enhanced version of bonding or another option would provide the coverage producers want, at a cost that is affordable,” Robertson said.

Other praise and criticism for the opposition parties’ plan fell along expected lines. “Bill C-13 is designed to deregulate Canada’s grain industry,” said National Farmers Union president Stewart Wells, who farms at Swift Current,Sask. “It would pave the way for the sort of deregulation that led to the world’s financial disaster.”

“Keeping pesticide-treated grain, glass, rodent excreta and other dangerous contaminants out of Canada’s food grain system is too important a responsibility to hand to grain companies,” senior researcher Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said in a release Tuesday. “The job requires trained inspectors who are independent of the grain companies they oversee and accountable to the public.”

On the proposed end of bonding, the CCPA said C-13 thus increases farmers’ risk of “catastrophic financial losses if a buyer cannot, or will not, pay for delivered grain.”

“The government has known since last year that this bill was fatally flawed so it should come as no surprise that the opposition pushed today to remove it from the agenda of the House of Commons,” said Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union-PSAC, which represents grain inspectors.

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