Canadian Wheat Board issue just won’t go away

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Ahead of the Heard

It’s curious that just when you think an agriculture issue has been run off the road by the government bus, it seems to have crawled out of the ditch and started to throw rocks back at the bus.

Yes, the future of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), which most everyone had assumed was history after the last federal election, continues to generate headlines in the press, with much political swaggering from outraged opposition parties. So what gives — is this just a last orgy of grandstanding while the good ship CWB goes down in the Conservative sea?

One thing, for sure, wouldn’t it have been better for the issue if all the factors surrounding CWB activities had been brought to light years ago, so a more objective decision could have been made about its future.

For instance, only now do most grain growers find out that their access to producer cars will end with the demise of the CWB.

Producer cars were always the growers’ ace when it came to marketing their own grain when local grain elevators were either full or not willing to co-operate with shipping.

Growers could bypass grain companies, as the board was quite willing to accept grain they bought from growers shipped in railcars loaded directly by growers. It didn’t make any difference to the board who loaded the cars, as long as they got the right grain at seaport terminals. Growers who went that route saved about $1,500 in loading costs.

As it now turns out with the demise of the CWB, producer cars will be a thing of the past as grain companies will not support a shipping process that competes directly with them — they certainly never have before, except at very remote sites. It gets worse, if there are no producer cars, that means short-line railways will fold, as in most cases those cars were the main business of those railways.

Many of those railways were saved by farmer-shareholders who put up millions to keep them going — that share value, I expect, can be kissed away.

It sure would have been considerate if this particular matter had been resolved by the federal government before it went on its anti-CWB crusade.

You can rest assured that grain companies will be raising their trucking rates to distant inland terminals once competition from short-lines and producer cars has been eliminated.

What about rail freight rates themselves? In the past, it was the CWB that went to bat for producers when it looked like the railways were overcharging grain shipments.

CWB lawyers challenged the case and won multi-million dollar settlements for grain growers. Do you think existing grain companies and the government will be taking the same action against railway if overcharging occurs again — not likely. Again, it would have been nice if this matter had also been resolved well before the demise of the CWB had been announced.

The anti-CWB folks like to mention that canola growers have been prospering quite happily with no help from the CWB. That is true. It has also been mentioned that if the CWB has been so good for grain marketing, why does it have to be compulsory?

Would not growers voluntarily flock to an agency that provides the best returns? That is another good point. It does cause one to ponder the pros and cons. The problem is the federal government only ponders the theoretical pros. If only some compromise could be found, but that just won’t happen. This has become an ideological battle and politicians don’t really care about the casualties, especially when they can use taxpayer money to cover up any mistakes or shortcomings.

The CWB employee pension and severance liabilities will surely cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions to cover.

I wonder if taxes from the vast new profits from a wide open grain market will ever cover the cost of winding up the CWB. Don’t expect a Conservative government to ever try to research that question — it doesn’t want to know the answer.

Meanwhile, opposition parties are joining the pro-CWB chorus and making the appropriate outraged appearances at rallies to save the CWB. They promise to fight to death when the legislation comes up in Parliament.

It’s all futile, of course. The government will have its way. And any future Liberal or NDP federal governments won’t re-establish the CWB anyway, so they are being rather hypocritical. Remember NAFTA and the GST — they fought those issues to death, too.

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