The Wheat Board: To Vote or Not to Vote

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

On the question of whether the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) should retain its monopoly over marketing Prairie wheat and barley, some Conservative MPs favour a farmer plebiscite. But putting the issue to a vote would not be a good move. It’s neither smart public policy nor good politics.

During the last two federal elections, the federal Tories campaigned on the specific promise that they would restore to western Canadian farmers the voluntary choice as to whom they could sell the grain they grow. Producers have not had that right since 1943, when a wartime measure forced them to give it to a bureaucracy who sells it on their behalf. Over the years that followed, in an effort to regain this fundamental right to the product of their labour and investment, a number of farmers have gone to prison for selling their grain to someone other than the Board.

Since the January election, the Harper Conservatives have been lobbied hard by pro-Board supporters to abandon the promise, or at least allow farmers to decide “collectively” if they want marketing choice. They’ve wrapped themselves in the rhetorical blanket of democracy, despite the fact that under current rules the voting is little more than a farce. But even if those problems were fixed, in a free country there should be no such thing as the right to vote one’s freedom away.

The Western Producer, one of the Prairies most widely read farm papers, recently reported that the Communist Party of Canada was calling on the Prime Minister to keep his hands off the Wheat Board. Spokesman Darrell Rankin said at the very least, farmers should have the opportunity to vote in a plebiscite on the future of the Board. Conservatives who agree should check their premises, and be wary of the company they keep.

The Wheat Board’s financial record certainly argues for reconsideration of its extraordinary powers. Over the last 14 years, wheat acreage has decreased on the Prairies as farmers have shifted to more profitable crops, and the CWB’s global market share is down 20% from previous levels. The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association recently compared CWB prices with those in the northern U.S. and found dramatic differences. Under the current system our farmers are losing about $1.60 a bushel or $100 an acre on their winter wheat. In the ’02-’03 crop year, the Board ran an $85.4 million deficit in the wheat pool that had to be covered by taxpayers. And there is clear evidence that the monopoly hampers the development of new, value-added industries as well as the investment in research and development needed to maintain Canada’s competitive advantage in world markets.

Despite all this, some Conservatives find the plebiscite option appealing. They need to think twice before opening up this Pandora’s Box.

Deciding who can vote will be controversial. Will it be all farmers or just Wheat Board permit book holders, 40% of whom deliver no grain? Will the ballots be weighted by volume of production to properly reflect economic interests, or not? Who will hold, monitor and police the vote? What about third-party spending limits, and the role of the CWB and its Board of Directors during the election? The wording of the question itself will be divisive. Board supporters will ask that it be an up-or-down vote on the very existence of the CWB. Choice advocates will rightly insist on a question that includes a voluntary CWB as one of, but not the only, option in a reformed marketing environment.

No matter what it decides on each of these questions, the government will lose political capital and public support and receive negative press every step along the way. And no matter what the final outcome, the political issue will remain unresolved. Both sides already have a multitude of rationales ready for why the results would be invalid. The Conservatives will be no further ahead after a vote than they were before one.

If CWB supporters win, a significant number of “illegal” protest shipments of grain across the U.S. border are likely. Then the minority Conservatives will face the same decision as the Liberals who preceded them in government – to charge farmers for selling their wheat or barley outside of the CWB system. They will have to explain to the West why they are putting farmers in jail for something that easterners freely do.

Holding such a plebiscite, which at best will accomplish nothing and at worst derail the Conservatives’ promise of marketing choice even as it alienates their Western base, is beyond foolhardy. That some Conservatives are considering it is just plain foolish.