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Wheat-board chief fears final harvest if Harper has his way

A farmer combines his grain crops near Stettler, Alta, in Octoober of 2010.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

The Canadian Wheat Board is doomed if the Harper government proceeds with a bill to strip it of control over western grain sales, the beleaguered marketing agency's chairman warns.

The farmer-controlled board is currently the world's biggest grain exporter by volume but Allan Oberg says scrapping its monopoly power and allowing producers to sell their output through any middleman would spell the end of the agency.

Mr. Oberg is in Ottawa Wednesday to appear before a Conservative-dominated Commons committee that is briefly reviewing legislation to scrap the board's monopoly over grain sales throughout Western Canada.

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The debate over the wheat board 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.

Mr. Oberg, who's also suing the federal government to halt changes, predicted the Canadian Wheat Board wouldn't survive long after its single-desk power is removed. The Forestburg, Alta. farmer estimated in an interview that the board would disappear within several years.

The Conservatives and their predecessor protest parties have long campaigned against coercive rules that give the 68-year-old marketing agency its volume power in world markets. As of the May 2011 election, Stephen Harper won the majority power needed to dismantle the board's monopoly over Western Canadian grain sales.

Right now all grain farmers from B.C.'s Peace District to the Manitoba-Ontario border are required by law to sell their wheat and barley to the board, which was first granted this power during the Second World War.

Western Canadian grain farmers are extremely divided over whether to continue to oblige producers to sell through the board.

A plebiscite conducted this past summer by the Wheat Board found 62 per cent of wheat farmers wanted to stick with single desk monopoly sales, as did 51 per cent of barley producers. The Harper government has rejected the results of this vote, saying it was a flawed exercise.

Mr. Oberg challenged the Conservatives to hold their own plebiscite, as he says they are currently obliged to do under the law governing the wheat board.

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He accused the Harper government of being frightened of what a poll of farmers would find. "They're afraid of the result; they are afraid that a majority of farmers might have a different opinion than their [the Tories']own ideology," Mr. Oberg said.

"Here's an organization that's controlled by farmers; why shouldn't a majority of them be able to decide its future. ... to me that's just logical," he said. "Why should the government be interfering here? The wheat board has its own democracy; let it work."

Mr. Oberg said Australia is a cautionary tale for what happens to a single desk wheat board after its monopoly powers were removed. The Australian Wheat Board was eventually snapped up by a private-sector company. "I think this new grain company will suffer the same fate, unfortunately," the board chairman said.

Mr. Oberg said the Canadian Wheat Board has no facilities or regulated access to other grain companies' facilities in order to take charge of wheat and send it to ports. It would have to try to convince rival grain and seed companies to provide it with facilities.

"Think about starting on your own business and being reliant on a competitor to make a sale or do business: that's not a very nice place to be," Mr. Oberg said.

The court challenge, launched by Mr. Oberg and seven other farmer-elected board directors, argues the Tory government is breaking the law because changes to the marketing agency's mandate require a vote among Western grain farmers.

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Patrick Monahan, legal scholar and provost of York University, couldn't predict whether the wheat board challenge would succeed or fail.

But, he said in an interview last week, ultimately Parliament is considered to have the power to amend its own laws. "Generally, the courts have confirmed that Parliament can amend any statute that it has previously enacted, even statutes that require some form of consultation prior to amendment."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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