The federal government’s primary disaster relief program for farmers is often too slow to help those in need, says federal auditor general Michael Ferguson.
In a damning report tabled in Parliament last week, he concluded that AgriRecovery seems to work better for large disasters but is slow and unreliable for the rest.
“All producers should be treated equally,” he told a news conference.
“Our audit of disaster assistance to agricultural producers is an example of a program with a disconnect between the program’s objective and its outcome.”
The audit also complained that follow-up measures to assess whether the program payments actually help affected farmers were often lacking.
The average time to assess a disaster and approve payments was 126 days compared to a program target of 45 days.
Ferguson said many producer groups surveyed for the audit voiced frustration at the delays.
“The drought that the assistance was needed for was in 2010 and the need was to try to get assistance for the producers to be able to retain cattle and not have to sell them to get through the winter,” one producer organization told the auditors.
“Assessment and assistance did not happen until the spring of 2011 and most had already sold their cattle to pay the bills.”
Ferguson said the producers who were surveyed like the program in principle but are frustrated by its unpredictability. A decade ago, it was similar complaints about the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program that led governments to launch what they said would be more reliable Growing Forward programs.
In response, Agriculture Canada acknowledged the criticisms but argued that any fix will have to wait five years until the next Growing Forward policy takes effect and changes can be negotiated with the provinces.
“The department recognizes the opportunities to improve the assessment process, particularly for smaller initiatives, and will engage central agencies and provinces to further analyze impediments in the process, update our timelines as required and make process adjustments to meet these targets,” the department said in its official response to the auditor general.
“The target date is March 2018.”
However, in reaction to another criticism about a lack of public reporting on missed AgriRecovery deadlines, the department said it would start to publicly report on delivery performance late next year.
Ferguson suggested at his news conference that it should not take so long to fix the problem.
“Many of the things we identified that are weaknesses, they can be fixed,” he said.
Ferguson lamented the government’s slowness to correct obvious program implementation flaws.