“Why should I sell the Canadian farmers' wheat?” asked Pierre Trudeau, a Liberal prime minister, in 1968. By daring to question the existence of the Canadian Wheat Board he helped relegate his party to perennial fringe status in the prairie provinces, where the board has a legal monopoly over wheat and barley sales. Successive governments gingerly left the board alone. But Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government has no such inhibitions. It plans to remove the board's monopoly, thus possibly spelling the end of a venerable Canadian institution — and one of the world's biggest grain exporters.
The board, a government body, dates from the Depression, when farmers were going broke. It is responsible for quality control, sales and marketing. It fixes a guaranteed price, with the government covering its occasional losses. Its supporters, often smaller farmers distant from the American border, say that the board has turned Canadian wheat into a global brand that commands a premium price because of its uniform high quality. Its detractors among farmers say that they could beat the board's price by selling directly, and that decentralised sales would encourage local food industries. It is a sore point on the prairies that much of the flour on the country's supermarket shelves is milled in Ontario.
Mr Harper believes in smaller government. He is honouring a campaign commitment to allow farmers in the three prairie provinces — Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan—to sell their wheat freely. To that end, the government replaced three of the board's directors and, in December, its president. The opposition Liberals and the premiers of Saskatchewan and Manitoba (but not Alberta), want to keep the board. Chuck Strahl, the agriculture minister, has agreed to ballot farmers on the issue. But barley growers, thought to be more in favour of freeing markets than wheat farmers, will vote first.
The outcome of the votes is uncertain. Mr Strahl insists that the board can survive—albeit in diminished form—a transition to free markets, which he envisages by the summer of 2008. Environmentalists claim that a C$345m ($300m) biofuels programme, announced last month, is a subsidy designed to sway the vote.
The debate over the board has rumbled on for years. But this time change may at last happen. The Conservatives, whose heartland is in the west, won 48 of the 56 prairie seats at the most recent election. Their bet is that the farmers, however disgruntled, will not desert them for their opponents, who are seen as representing eastern Canada. With wheat prices high, some farmers see instant profits from the end of monopoly.
International pressure against the board is mounting, too. American farmers have long complained that the monopoly involves subsidy. The European Union agrees. John Howard, Australia's conservative prime minister (who is seen as a role model by some Canadian conservatives), last month stripped his country's wheat board of its monopoly following a bribery scandal. Though some prairie farmers stand to lose from free markets, Canadian consumers stand to gain from cheaper flour. Unlike Trudeau, Mr Harper has little to fear from taking on the board.