Agriculture committee at odds over issue to prioritize

The House of Commons agriculture committee, which earned a reputation under the previous parliament for being one of the few committees that routinely achieved cross party co-operation, has a dilemma.

After three meetings, the committee is divided on a study topic for the remainder of the spring session.

The Liberals, lead by Ontario MP Francis Drouin, want to focus on the next Agriculture Policy Framework, Growing Forward 3.

The current $3 billion framework (Growing Forward 2) is set to expire in 2018. Given any unforeseen crises, its replacement is the main discussion item for the July agriculture ministers meeting in Calgary.

Agriculture falls under both federal and provincial jurisdiction.

The cost of the five-year funding framework is divided, with the federal government covering 60 percent and the provinces responsible for 40. While the majority of the funding is dedicated to business risk management, the policy framework also provides funding for research projects, innovation, market development and programming.

The Liberals argue that a study on the pending Growing Forward 3 would give the government a chance to hear from stakeholders before the ministers meet in July.

The Conservatives and the NDP see a study on GF3 as nothing more than “busy work” given much of the conversation right now is happening at the provincial level.

“…Growing Forward 2 into Growing Forward 3 is not the issue of today,” Conservative MP, and former Agriculture Committee Chair Bev Shipley said April 20. “It will be the issue when we come back [in the fall].”

Committees, Shipley noted, can always be recalled in the summer to deal with issues that members feel are becoming pressing – an avenue that remains open to the GF3 discussion once those involved have a better idea of where the framework discussion is going to go.

NDP Agriculture Critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau has also said she is open to a study on Growing Forward 3, once a clearer structure has been set.

The gridlock comes as federal discussions with the provinces on the upcoming Growing Forward 3 conversations begin. However, some of those talks have been delayed because of recent provincial elections in Manitoba and Saskatchewan – key agricultural players.

Until the provinces have been able to gather their thoughts, opposition MPs argue there are several pressing issues the committee would be better off spending their time studying.

Those issues, the Conservatives and NDP insisted April 20, include grain transportation, labour shortages, diafiltered milk, and the pending Trans Pacific Partnership.

“I’m going to talk about the things that farmers have asked me to talk about, and if the Liberals want to shut me up, I think what they’re going to find is that I’m going to talk even more and defend farm families who are depending on this side to educate that side apparently about the priorities that they have,” Conservative Agriculture Critic Chris Warkentin.

That somewhat heated statement came after Drouin, who unexpectedly moved for a vote on the GF3 study, told Warkentin to stop talking after he lamented witness testimony had been sidetracked by Drouin’s vote call.

The division at committee has been heightened by a case of “he said, she said.”

Unlike several of his cabinet counterparts, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay has not given the committee any suggestions on issues he would like studied – leading to a war of “he said, she said” at committee.

Guelph Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield told the committee the minister told him that while the commitee determines its own destiny, a study on GF3 “would be very valuable for the sessions that will be happening in July, that even having the minutes to our meeting and to see what our conversation was at the committee would be very valuable for him.”

Warkentin disagreed. “I don’t want to just be engaged in busywork right now,” he stressed.“Because what I’ve heard, both from the provinces as well as from the federal minister, that at this point there’s not a lot that we could contribute to the discussion.”

The conversation will continue May 2, when the committee reconvenes.

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