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A farm worker carries equipment during the wheat harvest near Fort MacLeod, Alta., on Sept. 26, 2011. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
A farm worker carries equipment during the wheat harvest near Fort MacLeod, Alta., on Sept. 26, 2011. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

NDP singles out seven Tory MPs in potential conflict over wheat board Add to ...

The NDP says western Conservative MPs with a personal stake in scrapping the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly should skip votes on the matter or risk breaking conflict-of-interest rules.

Bill C-18, a Tory bill to remove the board’s control over Western Canadian grain sales, is expected to be put to a vote Monday evening before heading to a committee for study.

The NDP says they’ve counted at least seven Tory MPs in a conflict of interest on the wheat board because they, their spouses or their offspring have stakes in grain farms or income from operations.

“They’re both duty- and honour-bound to recuse themselves from the vote on the Canadian Wheat Board because they have a personal interest in the outcome,” NDP wheat-board critic Pat Martin said.

He points to the Commons conflict-of-interest code that says: “A member shall not participate in debate on or vote on a question in which he or she has a private interest.”

There are 57 ridings in Western Canada where farmers are currently forced to sell their wheat and barley to the board – an obligation the majority Tory government is preparing to eliminate. All but five of these MPs are Conservative and none of the opposition members has grain farming interests.

The Conservatives aren’t buying it.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz rejects the notion that some Tory MPs are in a conflict of interest on the wheat board. He says the entire Conservative caucus will all be allowed to cast votes.

“Our party will be standing up and voting as the only party that truly represents Western Canadian farmers,” Mr. Ritz said in a prepared statement emailed by spokeswoman Meagan Murdoch.

Government officials said they believe MPs are exempt from conflict-of-interest rules in this case because the ethics code contains an exception for measures affect “a broad class of the public.”

Mr. Martin raised the matter in the Commons Monday and has filed a complaint with the federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson.

There are about 75,000 grain farmers in Western Canada whose future will be altered by changes to the wheat board. That means the affected group is about 0.22 per cent of Canada’s population of 34 million.

Private interests under the conflict-of-interest code include matters that affect a member’s spouse, son or daughter.

Using a disclosure registry of public office holders, the NDP has identified seven Tory members of Parliament whom they say have grain farming interests either directly or through spouses or offspring.

The NDP says the Conservative MPs in question include: Yellowhead MP Rob Merrifield; Vegreville-Wainright MP Leon Benoit; Macleod MP Ted Menzies; Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen; Cypress Grasslands MP David Anderson; Crowfoot MP Kevin Sorenson; and Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback.

Mr. Martin said these and any other affected MPs should identify their conflict in this case.

“It couldn’t be any more clear: you have to avoid conflict and the appearance of conflict, so any other MP that may have family or relatives associated with grain production on the prairies should also recuse themselves even if they’ve not listed themselves as farmers,” the NDP MP said.

Several of the Tory MPs flagged by the NDP stood in the Commons last week to offer personal insights on the wheat board.

“This is an important issue that is near and dear to my heart and the comments I am going to make this afternoon are biased, I admit,” Mr. Merrifield told the Commons on Oct. 20.

“I am going to fess up right off the bat that I am a farmer,” the Yellowhead MP said.

“My son is actually the fourth generation on our farm so agriculture goes back a long way in our family. I have produced wheat and barley every year for the last 30 to 40 years and my comments are biased because I will do and say anything I possibly can to support the farm family and agriculture in western Canada.”

A spokeswoman for the Ethics Commissioner told The Globe the office is now considering whether the wheat board bill is a conflict of interest for the MPs in question – or whether the legislation affects a broad class of people and the legislators are free to vote.

The Conservatives are using their majority government to scrap the wartime-era monopoly Ottawa granted the Canadian Wheat Board over western wheat and barley sales.

The change will grant Western Canadian farmers, from B.C.’s Peace River district to eastern Manitoba, the freedom as of August, 2012, to sell their wheat and barley to whomever they choose. In most cases, the buyers are expected to be big agricultural firms such as Cargill.

The measure is divisive. A wheat-board plebiscite recently showed 62 per cent of wheat farmers voted to stick with single desk monopoly sales, as did 51 per cent of barley producers.

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