Despite government signals that changes were coming to the Canadian Grain Commission, its actions continue to produce surprises.
First, the government embedded significant changes to the grain regulatory system in a budget implementation bill of more than 400 pages.
Then, after opposition complaints that only the finance committee would review legislation included in the omnibus budget bill, the government surprised by promising to send segments, including Canada Grain Act changes, to competent committees such as agriculture.
However, the Conservative majority rejected NDP proposals that the budget bill be broken up into separate bills dealing with distinct topics.
The Budget Implementation Act will receive just five days of Commons debate and will clear second reading approval-in-principle this week.
Members of the Commons agriculture committee say they could quickly begin hearings on the grain act changes, perhaps scheduling evening meetings because normal Tuesday and Thursday morning meetings are being used to study food safety legislation.
“We asked that they send budget bill sections to appropriate committees, so I think we have an obligation to deal with them expeditiously, perhaps in extra evening sittings,” NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said Oct. 25.
Opposition MPs applauded the government decision to allow specialized committees to study parts of the bill relevant to their area of expertise.
However, veteran Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, a former federal agriculture minister, said the government should go further to allow MPs to vote for those sections of the budget bill they support and against those sections they oppose.
“They also should allow separate votes on each of the separate areas,” he said.
“There are parts of the bill we could support and some we cannot. Making MPs vote in the end on the entire bill really makes the vote meaningless.”
The budget bill proposes significant changes to the way the grain commission operates: ending mandatory inward inspections of grain moving between elevators and terminals owned by the same company, replacing existing grain trader bonding requirements with an insurance system and abolishing regional appeal tribunals in favour of appeals directly to CGC commissioners.
Chief commissioner Elwin Hermanson said ending mandatory inward inspection will reduce system costs by $20 million.
Changes to the grain act will also lead to consultations with farmers and the grain handling industry about what services should be required and what the private sector should pay, he added.
Fee-for-service charges have been frozen for most of the past two decades, forcing the commission to run a deficit and ask Ottawa for tens of millions of dollars a year in support.
The Conservative government has said it wants the grain commission to reduce costs, narrow the range of “mandatory” inspection services and pay its own way by privatizing some services or increasing fees.
The budget bill vote could come as soon as mid-November.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said a key issue in the debate is deciding what is a private benefit and what is a public good that Canadian taxpayers should fund.
“I think that issue needs a lot of debate, and I would like to see the (grain act) changes as a stand-alone bill that would receive more debate at the agriculture committee,” he said.
“The key, though, is that the quality assurance that the grain commission provides not be undermined by any of these changes.”