NDP Needs to Look Forward, not Back: Time to reform wheat board

Commentary, Agriculture, Joseph Quesnel

Why is the NDP government spending taxpayer money agitating against the inevitable end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly?

The federal government, with its majority status, has made it clear it will introduce legislation shortly to end the monopoly that forces Western farmers to sell their wheat and barley only to the board. Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia all support the federal government’s plan.

With an election looming — surprise! — we find Manitoba’s NDP government, forever looking backward instead of forward, busily running taxpayer-funded ads suggesting the end of this long-held monopoly will somehow ruin Manitoba’s economy.

Milton Boyd, an economist at the University of Manitoba, argues we need to understand the farming world in Canada has changed dramatically since the days the Wheat Board was formed almost seven decades ago.

We have much fewer wheat and barley farmers now who operate much larger farms and are much more sophisticated and savvy than before, he said. As large scale entrepreneurs, they are comfortable marketing their production on their own, without the Wheat Board’s help.

Back in 1935, most farmers lacked television and other sources of timely grain market information. Today, they have the latest market conditions in our Internet-oriented society.

They want the freedom to make their own marketing decisions. They also seem to be tired of playing games over this issue.

The Wheat Board is holding a non-binding plebiscite among wheat and barley farmers. But many farmers argue this is problematic given anyone with a permit book with the CWB is permitted a vote.

While a good idea in theory, the problem is the vote does not distinguish between holders in terms of their operation’s size or complexity and also how inclined they are to being entrepreneurial. So larger, more entrepreneurial operators who represent the bulk of production are swamped by the more numerous small-time, part-time, less sophisticated and usually older operators.

It’s also worth noting that only farmers in Western Canada are legally compelled by the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly. Central and Eastern Canadian farmers don’t face similar restrictions. As far as I’m aware, the sky has not fallen in those areas.

Boyd makes the case Manitobans need not fear a voluntary board as it would allow for private sector investment, innovation and job creation. While some jobs would be lost in the shift, this may mean many of these jobs could be shifted to the new voluntary board and bring other new jobs to the private sector.

Where would all this change place Canada? Well, Canada would be following the lead of other advanced countries that have abandoned monopoly buying boards. Canada would join Australia, which replaced its own wheat board in 2008.

Rather than fight the winds of change with shaky agitprop about the CWB, it’s time for our NDP leadership to look to the future, not to the past, and join our more confident neighbours in expanding and diversifying our grain industry by moving to a voluntary wheat board model.