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An Alberta farmer walks though his wheat field after the harvest in October of 2010. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
An Alberta farmer walks though his wheat field after the harvest in October of 2010. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Prairie Dispatch

Manitoba releases pro-wheat board ads as election looms Add to ...

For three more weeks, Greg Selinger can still use the powerful incumbency of the premier's office handed to him by his predecessor - even in partisan matters months before an election.

Mr. Selinger, the New Democrat Premier of Manitoba, unleashed a torrent of radio, print and television ads Monday aimed at the federal Conservative government's plan to significantly reconfigure the Canadian Wheat Board.

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The ads' message, and that of the NDP, is straightforward - the CWB, a monopoly that requires growers to sell grains to it with the hope of garnering a better overall price, is good for farmers and for Winnipeg, where it employs 400 people and indirectly supports another 2,000 jobs.

"We're very concerned with the message the federal government is sending to farmers, and we won't just let them pull the plug on the Canadian Wheat Board," Mr. Selinger said in a statement.

Mr. Selinger clearly hopes this will become a populist issue - particularly when his province goes to the polls in October. Mr. Selinger won the leadership of his governing party two years ago and is in his inaugural campaign as party leader. His chief rival, meanwhile, supports dismantling the CWB. The campaign appears already to have begun.

"The CWB is important to so many Manitobans," the Premier said.

It had better be - Manitobans are paying for its defence. The ads aren't from Mr. Selinger's NDP; they're from the province of Manitoba. Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives support CWB changes - but are in opposition, and can't run government ads.

The Harper government plans to scrap the requirement for farmers to sell to the CWB in 2012 under free-market principles, weakening (though hoping to preserve) the CWB while allowing farms to sell individually. The party holds nearly all of the seats in the prairies, which it says demonstrates support for its CWB plan (though the vast majority of the region's population has hardly seen, much less run, a farm).

Nevertheless, the federal government wasted no time in firing back at Mr. Selinger's NDP on Monday, with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz saying it's "disappointing but not surprising that the Manitoba government would be against an open and competitive market." The governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia support the federal changes. The CWB stretches across parts of the four provinces.

Regardless of which CWB approach is proper, Manitoba's two main parties will soon get an equal playing field. A new political law limits the types of ads governments can run in the three months before an election, which is set for Oct. 4 and shaping up to be a closely fought battle. The CWB ads, as such, can only run until July 4, three weeks away.

"He [Mr. Selinger]is spending taxpayer money trying to overturn the decision that the electorate has already made," PC Leader Hugh McFadyen said in his own rebuttal, arguing the ads imperil the relationship between Manitoba and the federal government.

Some observers, however, say there's no risk - both sides here have made their positions known years ago. The ads are simply repeating the point as an election looms.

"I don't think there's that risk this time, because there's a long-standing position here," said Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manitoba. "I think [running ads]is a predictable response, almost a compulsory response, on the part of this government particularly."

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