House agriculture committee risks losing its relevancy

It used to be that if you wanted a better idea of what the federal government’s plans for a respective sector was you skipped the House of Commons and headed straight to committee.

Traditionally, committees were the backbone of Parliament. They allowed MPs to dig into a variety of issues that were of critical importance for various industry sectors and groups within the Canadian population.

They provided a place for MPs and industry to discuss potential upcoming challenges and respond to proposed government legislation in an informed setting.

At least once a year, often around the same time as supplementary estimates, the minister for a respective file would be called in front of the committee to respond to questions and provide an update on his or her plans and priorities for various issues.

Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay made his latest trek to the House of Commons agriculture committee Nov. 30.

He didn’t field a single-hard hitting question the entire hour he was in front of the committee. Not one; from any side of the aisle.

There were no questions about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nor were there questions about how the federal government plans to grow the sector it has picked to be a key economic driver for the nation.

The closest policy questions came from NDP agriculture critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau (the committee’s only remaining member from the pre-Liberal government committee days) on whether Ottawa planned to inject more funding into its popular dairy innovation program. The answer was no.

Instead, MacAulay was repeatedly asked softball questions from his fellow Liberal MPs and got into a lengthy, nonsensical debate with Conservative fill-in Kelly McCauley, who wanted to know why Agriculture Canada spends a million dollars sending “foreigners to foreign conferences” instead of allowing tax breaks for Canadians suffering from autism.

The Conservatives two agriculture critics were both out of town. Why the party chose not to send at least one of its caucus members who also happens to be a farmer is a mystery.

For the record, Canada doesn’t spend a million dollars a year sending “foreigners to foreign conferences,” a point senior officials from the department repeatedly told McCauley.

Instead, that money is used to fund Canada’s commitments to international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization, a clarification McCauley chose to ignore. Repeatedly.

After the meeting, at least one committee member left the room muttering “that was embarrassing.”

Under the Conservatives, the Commons committee had earned the reputation of being one of the few committees that could work constructively together. The committee recognized it was often the only place where farmers and ranchers could interact directly with a group of MPs who had taken the time to learn the file’s many complexities.

That agriculture committee no longer exists.

The Liberals have regularly voted down attempts by the opposition to adjust the study schedule to hold emergency hearings on matters that break suddenly, particularly if those areas touch upon the workings of other committees.

Those subjects include the Liberal’s proposed tax changes, grain transportation and trade policy.

The gap between the farm and the city continues to grow at a rapid pace, a divide the House agriculture committee could help address by ensuring federal policy makers are aware of the agriculture industry’s views and positions. Whether that’s actually happening is up for debate.

To be clear, there are MPs on all sides of the House agriculture committee who have taken their responsibilities to heart.

Still, there’s more work to be done if the committee is to return to the days where its work was relevant to the challenges facing the farm community and Ottawa’s policy agenda.

If that’s not done, as a visibly frustrated Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow asked a few weeks back: “What’s the point?”

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