RIMBEY, Alta. — The future of Alberta’s farm safety legislation is hanging in the balance as the province heads into an election this spring.
The opposing United Conservative Party and governing NDP are sparring over the UCP’s plans to kill the new safety rules, a policy that aims to protect farm workers should accidents happen.
“The NDP’s ideologically driven agenda, including Bill 6, is undermining Alberta’s agriculture and agri-food industry,” charged UCP leader Jason Kenney, announcing the repeal plan March 12 on a farm near Rimbey.
But NDP Agriculture Minster Oneil Carlier fired back, arguing the safety legislation landed in a good place after lengthy consultation.
“I’m very concerned he would consider this for a few votes by putting farm workers’ lives at risk,” he said.
“This legislation goes a long way to increase safety.”
The controversial farm safety legislation recently came into effect after the government spent nearly two years consulting on it.
It was originally met with much resistance, but AgCoalition, a farmer-led organization made up of producer groups, has said it supports the changes.
However, despite previous consultation and support from some in the industry, Kenney said the legislation needs another look.
He said new recommendations would be made and passed into law later this year if elected.
“We’ll listen to the work that was done, but we will go back to the drawing board,” he said.
“I have not yet met a single farmer that supports Bill 6, even with the changes that were made and even with the consultations that were done.”
The current legislation doesn’t apply to farm families or neighbours; only people hired to work on the farm.
Carlier said he knows of farmers with employees who support the legislation, emphasizing it doesn’t affect family farms.
“There might be a lot of small farms that don’t support this, but the legislation doesn’t affect them in any way,” he said.
As part of its agriculture platform, Kenney said the UCP would allow farmers with employees to choose either private or WCB insurance.
He said he would exempt small farms from employment legislation, pointing to New Brunswick as an example, where he said farms with three or fewer employees are exempt.
Legislation in Alberta currently requires all farmers with paid employees to have WCB coverage.
Kenney said he would also reduce red tape in the agriculture department by one-third, appointing a minister with the task of finding efficiencies.
As well, oversight on agriculture research will likely change.
Kenney said agriculture research has become increasingly controlled by government, rather than being led by producers.
“We saw last spring a government decision to slow down and delay the allocation of funding to some of the research programs, and that caused the industry to step back and reconsider how to move forward,” said UCP agriculture critic Glenn van Dijken.
“The NDP government was deciding to take more control of those research funds, and producers and industry have a vested interest in needing research that will provide value back to the producers.”
However, Carlier said farmers are still collaborating with government on research and are re-aligning efforts together.
“We’re looking to move away from subsidizing large profitable corporations and re-focusing on what Alberta and Canadians have done over generations, and that’s public good research,” he said. “We’re refocusing a bit, but for sure with the collaboration and good work that farmers and producers do themselves.”
A UCP government would also streamline the AFSC in an effort to improve responsiveness to farmers.
Producers have been wanting clear answers on certain issues, Kenney said, adding it can be months before they hear back.
However, improvements have already been made at AFSC, Carlier said, adding the old board, which was appointed by the former Progressive Conservative government, was turfed after being involved in an expense scandal.
“We’ve seen some real results with AFSC,” he said, noting crop insurance rates have been reduced and new programs for young producers have become available.
As for the UCP plan, it would consult on potentially auctioning more crown land for farming purposes, particularly in northern Mackenzie County.
Kenney said he would talk with First Nations in these areas before moving forward with auctions.
He said he would also fight back against what he says are attacks on agriculture by special interest groups and would advocate that the industry is safe, ethical and environmentally responsible.
As well, a UCP government would continue to push for market access for Alberta’s agriculture products and work to reduce interprovincial trade barriers.
Carlier said the NDP’s agriculture platform will soon be released as the province heads closer to the spring election.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done with this portfolio over the last four years,” he said.
“We’ve seen export sales increase year over year.”