The Conservative government has reined in the Canadian Wheat Board with an indefinite order preventing the grain seller from lobbying in support of its marketing monopoly.
Issuing what critics called a gag order, the federal cabinet recently approved a directive that the Winnipeg-based board not spend funds “directly or indirectly” on advocating for the retention of the board’s monopoly on sales of western wheat and barley.
The move comes as the Tories wait for recommendations from a government-appointed task force studying how best to implement a system where farmers could choose to market outside the board.
“The CWB reports to Parliament through me, and should not be attempting to undermine this government’s policy objectives,” Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl said in a statement.
Strahl said he welcomes the opinions of farmers, but the wheat board should use its “resources and energy” to market grain.
The order prevents the wheat board from spending money on advertising, publishing or market research if it relates to advocating in favour of the board’s monopoly powers. But the agriculture department said the order doesn’t infringe on the rights of individuals to make public statements.
Ken Ritter, chairman of the wheat board’s board of directors, said the government should rescind the directive, calling it “neither necessary nor fair in a democratic nation.”
“It is simply not the Canadian way,” said Ritter, who farms at Kindersley.
The board, which has argued its value comes from its monopoly, will comply with the directive, said Ritter. But he said it’s unnecessary because the board is already currently restricted in its activities, with the election period for directors in five of the 10 wheat board districts underway.
Wheat board CEO Adrian Measner said the section of the Canadian Wheat Board Act used to issue the directive has been used in the past, but only for “extraordinary circumstances.” The board once received an order related to the implementation of a spring cash advance program. Previously, the board was directed not to sell grain to the former U.S.S.R. after that country invaded Afghanistan, he said.
Saskatchewan MP David Anderson, parliamentary secretary for the Canadian Wheat Board, defended the government’s decision, saying the board is a government entity that shouldn’t be involved in political advocacy. Anderson said any money the board spends belongs to all western grain farmers.
“We’ve had farmers calling us – they’re concerned their money is being spent to represent positions that they don’t hold,” he said.
Supporters were quick to criticize the directive. Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Mark Wartman called the order a “heavy-handed” move from a government that already has its mind made up on the board’s future. He said the fate of the board’s monopoly must be decided by farmers in a vote.
“This is very clearly a gag order that does not allow the board to use any of its resources to help inform farmers,” Wartman said. “Why are they afraid of farmers having an informed choice?”
Wartman said there’s evidence the wheat board won’t survive without its “single desk” or monopoly, the loss of which the province says would cost Saskatchewan farmers $300-$400 million a year.
The Saskatoon-based National Farmers Union called it an unprecedented gag order that stands in contrast to the Conservative election platform of accountability and transparency.
But Rolf Penner, agricultural policy fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, said the government is acting well within its boundaries. “They’re showing the wheat board who is in charge and who the boss really is,” said Penner, a Manitoba farmer who supports the end of the monopoly.
Ritter, however, said the wheat board is a shared-governance organization, with a majority of farmer-elected and some government appointed directors, and it is not the same as a typical Crown corporation