The Harper government has flexed its majority muscle to push through the Commons a controversial bill that will forever change the lives of 70,000 Canadian grain farmers.
With this, the Conservatives fulfilled a long-promised goal of stripping the Canadian Wheat Board of control over western grain sales – a move that the agency’s dissenting chair has warned will ultimately doom the Prairie institution.
Conservative MPs easily outvoted their NDP and Liberal rivals Monday evening to pass the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act in the Commons. The vote passed 153 to 120.
As of Aug. 1, 2012, western Canadian farmers will be free of the wheat board’s monopoly and no longer forced to sell their wheat and barley through the agency.
Instead, for the first time in nearly seven decades, they will be able to negotiate their own deals.
“This is a tremendous day; this is a movement forward; this is what we have been waiting for, [for]decades,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Monday.
“For far too long, western farmers have been shackled by an outdated monopoly and today they got one step closer to having the marketing freedom they want and deserve.”
The Conservatives and their predecessor parties, including Reform, had long campaigned against the board as a symbol of big government gone awry – a nanny state intrusion into the lives of farmers that, like the gun registry, the Tories were determined to end.
Before it can become law and take effect, the legislation must still be approved by the Senate, where the Tories also outnumber their rivals and can ensure its passage.
Western Canadian farmers are sharply divided on the legislation, plebiscites conducted by the board show.
The Conservatives have been adamant about passing the bill before year end so that millers, maltsters and farmers can begin negotiating contracts for summer 2012 delivery.
The wheat board debate is fundamentally a battle between individualism and collectivism – over whether, in 2011, these farmers should be obliged to pool their grain to seek a better price or whether they should be free to pursue their fortunes alone.
Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel predicted farmers would suffer when producers are free to exit the board. Those who wish may stick with the board but it will no longer have the selling volume to command as much influence in the market.
“For generations, farmers relied on the wheat board to get the best possible price for their grain and to support their families,” Ms. Turmel said. “But this government ignored them and now that stability is gone.”