Stalling of plant breeders’ rights bill reflects PMO’s growing power

There’s a question quietly rumbling its way through agriculture groups in Ottawa lately: where, oh where, is Bill C-18?

The Agricultural Growth Act, or Bill C-18, hasn’t been seen on the order paper (parliament’s daily agenda) since a brief debate in March. Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz introduced the bill last December.

If passed, the bill would see Canada sign onto UPOV 91, the international plant breeder’s rights agreement dating back to 1991. The legislation also includes changes to the Advanced Payment Program and increased flexibility around security repayments.

Ritz has said he wants the bill passed in time for Canada to adopt UPOV 91 by August 2014, the start of the next crop year.

C-18 has widespread support from most major agriculture groups — the National Farmers Union being the exception — so its sudden disappearance from the Ottawa agenda is puzzling.

There’s no question the ongoing grain backlog in Western Canada and the sudden need for emergency legislation threw MPs for a loop.

Yes, for a few weeks Bill C-30 (the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act) was the focal point of agriculture chatter in Ottawa.

Still, to suggest everything else in a department or minister’s office must be put on hold because of one un-foreseen situation is not only concerning, but frightening.

Canada is a large country, with multiple issues arising in different regions at the same time.

The expectation is MPs, ministers and departments should be able to multi-task several files within their portfolios at once.

And, if there’s one minister who should be able to juggle more than one issue at a time, it’s Ritz. First appointed agriculture minister in 2007, he is now one of the longest serving cabinet ministers on prime minister Stephen Harper’s front bench.

He’s also never been shuffled. Seven years down the road, the expectation is that he has a decent grasp and understanding of his portfolio.

However, ministerial and parliamentary multi-tasking appears to go against the “one-at-a-time” mindset of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

For years, PMO staffers (fondly referred to by some Ottawa scribes as the “kids in short pants”) have been accused of dictating the timing and placement of bills and debates.

Normally, Parliament’s schedule is set via consultation with all party House leaders.

Lately, though, it seems there’s a direct line between the government House leader’s office and the PMO, which affects when a bill is brought forward for debate.

That poses a problem for departments such as agriculture. Most PMO folks have little understanding of Canadian agriculture.

Convincing them the Agricultural Growth Act should be a Conservative top priority is no easy task.

The result, insider sources tell me, is the minister and other rural MPs are often left fighting the Conservative political machine by themselves.

The delay means some in Ottawa are now suggesting Bill C-18 might be stuck until the fall. That rumour has many Ottawa agriculture folks on edge.

Seventeen farm organizations, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Grain Growers of Canada and Cereals Canada, have joined forces under the Partners in Innovations banner to push the federal government to adopt UPOV 91 immediately.

In an effort to boost the pressure, groups such as the Canadian Seed Trade Alliance have started writing industry letters calling for Bill C-18 to be deemed “high priority.”

Those letters, once addressed to the agriculture minister, are now being sent to the PMO.

Time is running out. If Canada is expected to meet Ritz’s Aug. 1 deadline, the bill must reappear in the House in the coming days. Otherwise, the government risks making another promise to the international community it is unable to keep.

Several international investments in seed and crop varieties, for example, hinge on Canada’s signing of UPOV 91, the head of the Canadian Seed Trade Alliance wrote in his April 16 letter to the PMO.

Those agreements, Peter Entz warned, “could all be at risk” if Bill C-18 is delayed.

At a time when Canada’s global reputation, particularly when it comes to agricultural issues, is on the rocks, thanks to the rail logistics crisis, the threat of failing to meet another deadline is concerning.

Canada used to be known for keeping its word. It’s time to reassure the world we can do just that.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.

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