Saturday, October 22, 2011

Facts, Lies and the House Debate

The debate over the removal of the single desk has gone to the House of Commons.  And unfortunately, the lack of clear information remains as opposition parties appear to be dealing with less than a full understanding of the single desk.  There’s far too much material from the last couple of days of debate to catalogue everything, so here are just a few examples.

On government authority and responsibility

Nycole Turmel, Leader of the Opposition (NDP):
Mr. Speaker, here is what the law says:  "The Minister shall not cause to be introduced in parliament a bill that will exclude any kind, type, class or grade of wheat or barley unless the Minister has consulted with the board, and the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension."  That is the law of the land.  Why won't the Prime Minister respect the law, respect the producers, and keep the Canadian Wheat Board in place?

Ms. Turmel is paraphrasing Section 47.1 of the CWB Act.  It appears she’s saying that the Minister can’t change the Act because a plebiscite was held and farmers seem to want to keep the single desk.

Prime Minister Harper’s answer was bang on, saying, in part: “Mr. Speaker, the law of our system, our constitutional system, is extremely clear. A previous government cannot bind a future government to its policy.”  He said this because Section 47.1 only applies to adding or removing commodities from the provisions of the single desk.  It does not apply to repealing the Act. 

But Ms. Turmel wouldn’t let it go:
Mr. Speaker, it seems the Prime Minister forget about the law of our government.  I just read the law to the Prime Minister; it says: "that the Minister shall not cause to be introduced in Parliament a bill impacting the wheat board's mandate, unless the producers have voted in favour of these changes."

The second time she read the “law”, she changed it. Now she says it refers to “a bill impacting the wheat board’s mandate”, not just excluding a commodity.  Really?  Can you do that?  When your argument is so weak, can you really make it up as you go along, even when it’s wrong?

And then Nicki Ashton (Churchill, NDP) had a go at it:
Section 47.1 guarantees farmers the right to vote on changes to the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing structure. The government not only ignored that plebiscite but is also ignoring section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act, which states that farmers must have a say in any proposed plans to alter the operation of the Wheat Board.

Now, apparently, Section 47.1 refers to “any proposed plan to alter” the CWB.  I guess if that’s what you need to say to make your argument, then that’s what you say, whether it’s true or not.

Hon. Ralph Goodale (Wascana, Lib.):
Section 47.1 of the existing act does not prohibit changes to the single desk. It does not prohibit even the elimination of the single desk. However, it makes it clear that the decision is one for farmers to take. It is not for politicians or bureaucrats, but for farmers themselves. Section 47.1 embeds in the law the principle that there ought to be a plebiscite, a vote, held among prairie farmers to determine whether or not the nature of the single desk ought to be changed.

I am utterly amazed that Mr. Goodale, the author and architect of the current CWB Act, would actually take the position that an Act that he wrote was meant to bind future governments to this policy, which would mean they can’t repeal the Act.  Are we really supposed to believe that was his intent?

Astonishingly, in a moment of lucidity (outside of the House), Pat Martin set the record straight, contradicted Mr. Goodale, Ms. Ashton and his own party leader, Ms. Turmel.

Pat Martin (Winnipeg North; NDP):
I don’t actually buy the argument that section 47 precludes the current government from amending the Act. I think the Prime Minister is right. You would have a constitutional crisis ...  It’s – it’s an impossible scenario. The Prime Minister is right. ... They have the right to amend legislation. That’s the nature of our whole legislative parliamentary democracy.

And that is why the government can repeal the Act, even without a plebiscite. And that is why all the opposition members who spoke on this are wrong; I can’t believe I’m saying this but Pat Martin has it right.

On the economics of the CWB

Over and over, we have heard opposition members criticizing the government for not doing a cost benefit analysis or providing any analysis on the impact of the removal of the single desk.  Yet, this doesn’t stop them from taking their own firm stands on this issue without the benefit of any analysis.  Many spoke of the economic calamity that will befall the prairies with the loss of the single desk (with no analysis to back it up), but I’ll pick on only one.

Mr. Peter Julian (Burnaby—New Westminster, NDP):
1.       The Conservatives have no interest in disclosing whether they have done any studies, because they know full well that the end of the Canadian Wheat Board will lead to lower household incomes for farmers. It is not just farm families who will suffer from the economic impact, but also the entire community. The government has provided no figures.
2.       Wheat producers in the United States have been at a serious disadvantage because there is nothing like the Canadian Wheat Board in place there.

I wonder if Mr. Julian would make these arguments if he knew that, in the last ten years (maybe longer) the US spring wheat farmer could sell his whole crop at the lowest price of each crop year and he would still get a better price than the Western Canadian farmer received through the CWB.  The government may not have commissioned this analysis, but they are real numbers.  Mr. Julian should try a different argument.

Others spoke of the premium prices the CWB supposedly gets.
Mr. Alex Atamanenko (British Columbia Southern Interior, NDP):
The fact is the Canadian Wheat Board currently seeks high-end markets for high-quality milling wheat and durum in over 70 countries, and does not have to pursue markets by reducing its prices. I might add that this obviously gives a premium to Canadian farmers.

Spoken with such certainty, such confidence, yet this is not obvious to Western Canadian farmers who consistently see higher prices just across the border in the US, even though the US sells into the same offshore markets.  US farmers get premiums over what Canadian farmers get; why is that not obvious to Mr. Atamanenko?

Hon. Ralph Goodale (Wascana, Lib.):
1.       There will be an imposition of new costs on farmers...

New costs?  The CWB reports to the federally appointed Grain Monitor that its marketing costs on spring wheat are over $10.00 per tonne and over $30.00 per tonne on durum.  Also, it is well documented that grain handling costs on CWB grains are substantially higher than on non-CWB crops like canola.  Remove the single desk, and you remove all these costs.  In fact, it has been argued that, with the removal of the single desk, total marketing costs will go down substantially. 

The CWB and its allies never talk about the cost of the CWB system.  Since the opposition parties in Ottawa don’t either, perhaps they get their information from the CWB.  But they should look at the costs; it’s all there in black and white; you just have to read it.

2.       The elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board has been the Americans' number one trade objective in North America for the past 20 to 25 years. Courtesy of the Conservative government, the U.S. is about to receive its fondest wish and Canada will get absolutely nothing in return.

I don’t get it.  The CWB says that by holding back sales, even US farmgate prices are higher than they would be without the single desk.  Remove the single desk, the CWB argues, and prices in the US go down.  Why would Mr. Goodale argue that the US is about to receive its fondest wish? Does it wish to have lower prices?  Or is the CWB wrong about raising the prices?  Or is someone just really not well informed?

The Job of the Opposition

The Opposition is meant to oppose the government, which includes criticizing government legislation and actions, often providing alternative policies.  Most of the time this is little more than criticism and attempts to publicly embarrass the government.  But when they take aim at the government with no understanding of what they are really arguing and no facts to support, and worse yet, make it up as they go, they really do no more than embarrass themselves.


  1. Goodale constantly holds himself up as a defender of farmers. There is plenty of evidence against that view. From 1996 to 2001 when Goodale was a star in the Liberal government of the day over 30 thousand farms ceased to exist. Goodale was instrumental in deregulating transportation and freight rates and then insisted on keeping obsolete marketing structures in place. I wonder if he has ever considered "what might have been", had he dealt with this issue 15 years ago as he should have. Would there be more farms today?

  2. If the opposition thinks the CWB is so good why not call for it to be extended to all farmers in Canada?

  3. I am surprised that the PCO does not just pass a Regulation, under Section 45 of the Act, which effectively bypasses the prohibitions of the Act. Sec. 45 says (paraphrased) Except as permitted by regulation, no one shall import or export wheat nor sell wheat except to the CWB.
    QED. Not illegal..