moved that Bill C-567, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act (transparency and duty to document), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand today to introduce Bill C-567.
Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, and freedom of information is the oxygen democracy breathes. The public has a right to know what their government is doing, and secrecy is the natural enemy of good public administration. These simple principles are the foundation of our access to information laws and the principles that this private member's bill seeks to strengthen and uphold.
I am honoured to have today as the seconder of Bill C-567 one of the country's leading authorities on the subject of access to information and the performance of the federal legislation from its inception to date, the member for Victoria. Parliament is fortunate to have such a learned and experienced fellow to contribute to our efforts to improve and strengthen the access to information regime.
It is the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish and for maladministration and abuse of power to occur in government. Indeed, the seeds of corruption are planted in the dark. While I agree with the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that one cannot legislate morality or enforce ethical conduct, there is no doubt in my mind that observation and scrutiny have the natural effect of elevating the standards of ethical behaviour and of curbing maladministration and abuse of power.
Again, sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. Being forced to operate in the light of day lifts the performance and raises the bar of good public administration.
Mr. Speaker, if there was less heckling and rattling over there, I could deliver my speech a lot more effectively.
Before we carry on, I would remind all hon. members that characterizations of other members as being strangers to the truth or perhaps not being truthful, if these are in any way imputing the motives of another hon. member, are generally seen as unparliamentary. I just caution hon. members to avoid that type of characterization or expression, perhaps, in the course of their remarks.
Questions and comments, the hon. member for Victoria.
Before I go to questions and comments, I would like to remind all hon. members that if it is their intention to split their time, they ought to announce it at the beginning of their speeches rather than at the end. If this member had gone on for about another 10 seconds, he would have been over the 10-minute limit, which would have precluded his colleague from Lambton—Kent—Middlesex from the opportunity to participate in this debate. I am sure that was not his intention.
We will go to questions and comments. The hon. member for Sydney—Victoria.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-18, the agricultural growth act, which was introduced on December 9.
To begin, I will explain basically all of the areas it touches, so that people understand how big this bill is.
It would amend nine separate pieces of agriculture-related legislation, affecting plant breeders' rights, as well as affecting seed, fertilizer, animal health, plant protection, monetary penalties, agriculture marketing programs, and farm debt mediation. It appears that the bill attempts to streamline regulatory processes affecting farmers and the agricultural industry more broadly. I will speak specifically to some of those areas.
I would point out that, when I look at where Canada is going in terms of support for its farmers versus where our major competitors are at—the European community and the United States—I see that we as a country are not in any way supporting our farm community to the extent other countries are supporting theirs.
A moment ago I mentioned the United States farm bill. It incorporates country of origin labelling, which has been a disaster for our producers in Canada. The Government of Canada claims it will retaliate. However, as the Speaker well knows, because he is a farmer himself, the damage has been done with country of origin labelling. It has cost our beef industry around $5 billion in losses and is still hurting it. We see that it has targeted price programs in which basically some American farmers just go to the mailbox and pick up money. Our producers are supposed to compete against that happening just south of the border.
I do not need to go into any great detail in terms of the common agriculture policy in the European industry. I know why the governments of the European community have done this.They have said that their people had gone hungry during World War II and will never go hungry again. Therefore, they will ensure that the farm community is supported and paid for what it produces. That is what our farmers are up against in terms of competing against these other countries. Our government is just not there with the kind of support for our producers that there should be.
I look at this bill and I see a heck of a lot more in terms of protecting corporate rights than farmers' rights. That is the basic thrust of the bill. It is more protective of the rights of corporations, global corporations mainly, than it is of the rights of Canadian farmers.
Bill C-18 would amend, among other things, the Plant Breeders' Rights Act. It would amend certain aspects of the plant breeders' rights granted under the act, including the duration and scope of those rights and conditions for the protection of those rights. It also would provide for exceptions to the application of those rights.
It would amend the Feeds Act, the Fertilizers Act, the Seeds Act, the Health of Animals Act, and the Plant Protection Act. Rather than my going through it, the summary of the bill outlines quite a number of areas where amendments would be made, for certain reasons, to all of those various acts.
It would also amend the Agriculture and Agri-Food Administrative Monetary Penalties Act to, among other things, increase the maximum limit of penalties that may be imposed for certain violations.
Bill C-18 would amend the Agriculture Marketing Programs Act. The minister claims the bill would modernize the requirements of the advance payments program in an effort to improve its accessibility and enhance its administration and delivery.
I want to make a point on that. The minister is talking of using the advance payments act to assist farmers in western Canada who no longer can deliver their grain. The reason we have a disaster in western Canada at the moment is really due to the actions of the minister. He is talking about using the advance payments to assist in that regard.
Mr. Speaker, because you have shipped grain too, you very well know that the advance payments act was not originally intended to be a loan program, and to a certain extent that is what it has become. The first $100,000 is interest-free and an individual can get up to $400,000. This legislation may increase those numbers.
Originally, the whole purpose of the advance payments act was to assist producers when harvesting their crops in the fall so they would not dump product on the market to pay for their combine or their harvesting costs or labour and so on. The whole purpose was to give farmers advance payments so they could feed the market, over time, rather than dumping product on the market and lowering its price as a result of oversupply. It was a wonderful program in the beginning and served its purpose well. It was a marketing tool by which to hold prices up.
Under the present Conservative government, and under the previous government, to be honest, the advance payments program to a certain extent lost its most important purpose of being a marketing tool, and is now being used for the spring and fall advance as a loan program to tide producers over. All sight of its original intent has been lost.
Bill C-18 would amend the Farm Debt Mediation Act to clarify the farm debt mediation process and to facilitate the participation of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food in the mediation process when the minister is a guarantor of a farmer's debt.
There is no question that the farm mediation process has to be improved. The intent was to bring creditors together to try to find a solution through mediation. A farmer would have some assistance through the government itself in personnel, and money as well in terms of putting together a business plan for that operation. Some of that has slid by the wayside and that mediation process does need to be cleaned up.
As the House can see from the many amendments, Bill C-18 is predominantly an omnibus bill that is causing some concerns among farmers. The committee must carefully investigate this. I am not on the committee, but my colleague from Sydney—Victoria is a member. That committee must carefully investigate each of the acts that would be affected so as to ensure that there is proper consultation. It is important to give people a look at exactly what changes would be made so that some analysis of the impact of those changes could be undertaken.
The more broadly-based the proposed changes are, and in this legislation they cross a number of areas dealing with regulatory issues and industry standards, the more difficult is our basic understanding.
We have seen that the Conservative government has a tendency to push through legislation, limiting debate in the process, and farmers may be faced with dramatic changes that they were not even fully aware were in the act in the beginning.
I am going to speak for a moment about the changes that the government made to the Canadian Wheat Board Act. The minister did, so I probably should as well, because I certainly do not agree with the minister's interpretation of the results of his killing the Canadian Wheat Board.
It was one thing for the government, if it so decided, to not allow the producers to have a vote on the Canadian Wheat Board. It was another, if it so decided, to do away with single-desk selling.
Instead of taking a four-year planning period in which it would have looked at all of the other things including the logistics the Canadian Wheat Board was in charge of and the authority it had, as a result we now have an absolute crisis in western Canada. As many as 50 ships are lined up in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, and producers are paying as much as $15,000 to $20,000 per day per ship. That money comes out of the producers' pockets in demurrage payments. Prices have been discounted in western Canada by as much as 40%, compared to U.S. prices.
Without question, the minister himself has to accept responsibility for the disaster that is in western Canada at the moment.
I should mention, in terms of the changes to the Canadian Wheat Board that have allowed this transportation and delivery of grain crisis to exist and that have perpetuated it, producers in mainland B.C. cannot get grain rail-shipped into their operations either. They cannot get it into their mills or into their feed, whether it is for poultry or for cattle. That livestock has to be fed daily. As a result, those producers are forced to turn to trucking. Whether or not they are in supply management, their costs are higher. Now, they are non-competitive and some of them are losing money.
It all comes back to the way that the government made its decision regarding the Canadian Wheat Board, instead of looking at all of the aspects of it and rather than single-desk selling. In changing legislation, we have to be careful that we do not cause other unforeseen difficulties, which is what happened in this particular case.
One of the big areas of the bill about which there is a lot of concern is the amendment to the Plant Breeders' Rights Act that would align plant breeders' rights with the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, which is really UPOV ’91. The minister talked about that. This move would update Canada's legislation from the UPOV ’78 framework. These amendments would include farmers' privilege, which allows farmers to use seeds from the crops they grow.
There is a lot of debate, as the minister said and responded to in his questions and as the member for Welland talked about. There is a lot of debate on what “farmers' privilege” really means. There are some concerned organizations out there. One of them, certainly, is the National Farmers Union.
The minister, in response to questions, said that it is outlined on page 7 that the farmers' privilege is really going to protect farmers. Keep in mind how the minister answered. He said that the farmers' privilege can “…be enhanced as we move forward….” If it can be enhanced as we move forward, in other words, by a change in regulations, then it can also be that some of that farmers' privilege can be taken away from that privilege we believe may be there and may exist in the legislation.
We know for a fact that this particular government has always, in its decisions, come down on the side not of the producer but of the corporate sector, and that is what worries me.
I want to quote what the NFU said in terms of the their concern. It stated:
The farmers' privilege provision in C-18 does not include stocking seed. Bill C-18 does not protect farmers from being accused of infringing on PBR-holders’ rights for any of these traditional practices: storing seed harvested in the fall for planting in the spring; storing unsold grain in bins in the farmyard—since the grain could potentially be used to grow more wheat; cleaning three years’ supply of seed to protect against crop failure, disease or frost.
It went on to state:
Worse, Section 50(4) of Bill C-18 enables the Governor in Council (ie Cabinet) to make regulations to put even more limits on the farmers’ privilege provisions. These regulations can exclude classes of farmers; exclude plant varieties; exclude uses of harvested material; restrict farmers’ use [of] harvested material; put conditions on farmers’ use [of] harvested material; stipulate what is to be considered “conditioning” of seed.
It further stated:
We do not know the text of Canada’s future [plant breeders' rights] regulations, but we can expect them to follow the official UPOV ’91 Guidance Document....
There are legitimate concerns. In the answer from the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food when he was questioned about farmers' privilege, he said that they can be enhanced as we move forward. That, in fact, increases my concern as it relates to this particular bill.
As I said in the beginning, I am very concerned that this bill, compared to the way the U.S. and the EU are moving, puts our primary producers at a disadvantage because we are giving more authority to the corporate sector and taking it away from primary producers.
The bill also proposes that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will have the authority to consider foreign reviews, data, and analysis during the approval or registration of new agriculture products in Canada, which can allow for a more effective approvals process. The act includes a new licensing and registration regime for animal feed and fertilizer operators and establishments, increasing monetary penalties for violations, stronger controls for agriculture products at the border, and requirements for more stringent record keeping to enhance safety. Most of those are good points, and I am sure the bill has a mixture of good points and some not so good, if I could put it that way.
Let me close by summing up. Bill C-18 is an omnibus bill. The record of the government with the farm community is not a good one: the killing of the Canadian Wheat Board, which has resulted in the absolute disaster in western Canada in terms of transportation and pricing; the cutting by 50% of AgriStability, which farmers will be in dire need of if they cannot ship their grain; the cutting of AgriInvest by the government; and finally, we should be going to public plant breeding instead of private plant breeding.
There, researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, with years of experience, are moving to other countries and taking that knowledge with them to compete against Canadians.
The bill needs to be examined closely.
The electoral district of Victoria (British Columbia) has a population of 108,771 with 88,118 registered voters and 235 polling divisions.
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