Tory policies deliver a bitter harvest

As soon as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed a majority government, one of their first orders of business was to tear down the Canadian Wheat Board in the name of “choice”.

So far, the wheat board’s destruction has turned out largely as feared: with no strong institution working to ensure a fair return for farmers, even a bumper crop and high prices haven’t translated into meaningful returns for the farmers who formerly enjoyed the benefits of the single-desk board. Now, the wheat board faces a Conservative-imposed deadline to determine how to wind itself down. But there are still important decisions left to be made – and all indications so far suggest that matters will only get worse for grain producers.

The good news so far is that longtime backers of the wheat board are still trying to provide an option that would create value both for farmers and the public.

Even recognizing that the wheat board no longer has the advantage of a single desk, they’ve worked to assemble a $250-million bid for what’s left of its assets.

In principle, a government that valued choice and market mechanisms (while refusing to provide any legislative support for a single desk) would be positively giddy at such an offer.

After all, it signals that an independent group of producers is willing to bid competitively for the wheat board’s assets, then operate it on their own without government support – even as former opponents of the wheat board are free to sell their own grain as they please.

But the Conservatives have made clear that they have no interest in either allowing farmers any say over what’s left of the wheat board, or getting value for the many assets held by a public institution.

In effect, the principle of choice is now being swallowed whole by a giant caveat: for the Conservatives, the choice to market grain co-operatively through the institution that’s developed decades of expertise doing just that is off the table entirely.

And so, instead of even looking at the offer from the Farmers of North America (FNA), they’re planning to hand over the wheat board’s assets to a U.S. agribusiness giant for free.

The closest federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has offered to an explanation for that choice is some rhetoric about long-term economic growth. But even leaving aside the question as to why anybody would trust the economic instincts of the minister who voluntarily halved what grain producers get for their product, there are ample reasons to see a foreign giveaway as the worst possible outcome.

Whether one looks at economic activity from the standpoint of office jobs and wages, control over a business, or the site where profits are taken and taxes are paid, both producers and citizens alike would be far better off seeing a group like the FNA take over the wheat board’s operations rather than handing it over to outside ownership. And that’s leaving aside the price the FNA is willing to pay for the public assets being lost.

What’s more, the Conservatives’ corporate giveaway comes at a time when they have booked $2 billion in unspecified and poorly planned asset sales as part of their illusion of a balanced budget. So every dime they forgo by refusing to seek value for what’s left of the wheat board will instead be made up by selling other public assets at fire-sale prices.

In other words, the Conservatives are leaving grain producers and citizens alike with a raw deal – all in the name of finally and permanently eliminating the choice they once claimed to prize.