The House of Commons agriculture committee heard some unusually blunt criticism of Conservative agriculture policy last week, and it made some Conservative MPs downright cranky.
The witnesses, invited by the committee as “individuals,” included University of Saskatchewan agricultural economics professor Ken Rosaasen, former National Farmers Union president Stewart Wells and current Manitoba NFU director Ian Robson from Brandon.
Rosaasen argued that last year’s federal-provincial cuts to the farm support AgriStability program, slated to take effect April 1, mean farmers will have “minimal support” when the next income downturn happens.
He said farmers will be “the weak link” in the grain value chain.
Wells and Robson criticized Conservative policies that ended the CWB single desk and the effect that has had on farmer income, stability and farmer power.
Among many criticisms, they argued more federal commitment to public research is needed and Conservative policies have eroded farmer power in favour of corporate interests.
At one point, when Liberal MP Frank Valeriote asked if last year’s higher prices were not a boon for farmers, Wells said high commodity prices are a “mixed blessing” for farmers because input prices also rise and stay high when commodity prices decrease.
Some Conservative MPs on the committee pounced. High prices are good for farmers and the end of the CWB monopoly has given farmers more cash up front and more options, they argued.
Some Conservatives used most of their allotted time asking hostile questions or making statements that attacked witness testimony without leaving time for a response.
Alberta MP Blake Richards made a point of confirming that Wells is a former NFU president and chair of the Friends of the Wheat Board and that Robson is an NFU director who was quoted as calling the CWB bill “jackboot legislation.”
Ontario Conservative Pierre Lem-ieux, parliamentary secretary to agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, complained that since both Wells and Robson were affiliated with anti-Conservative farm groups, they should be identified by their affiliation and not as “individuals.”
Alberta MP Brian Storseth argued that “individuals” should be non-aligned and not mouthpieces for activist groups with a political agenda. He said the NDP was trying to stack witnesses against the government.
Wells accused Conservatives of trying to smear witnesses.
Committee chair Merv Tweed from Brandon said the two prairie farmers had been invited as individuals rather than representatives of organizations.
One of the few moments of levity in a generally tense meeting came when Storseth said that while Wells and Robson claimed to represent the majority of prairie farmers who supported the CWB single desk, Conservative MPs represent most rural prairie ridings.
“Could you explain this to me?”
Robson drew laughs, at least from the opposition side, when he quickly shot back: “I’m just as puzzled as you are.”