Wednesday April 23, 2014

Omnibus approach muddies water

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An omnibus Bill is moving through Parliament right now dealing with agriculture.

The Agricultural Growth Act, when passed, which is all but inevitable in a majority government situation, is going to change things for Canadian farmers.

Just how much, and whether those changes will be good, or bad for farmers is a matter of much conjecture.

The AGA is being called an omnibus bill for agriculture because it proposes amendments to a number of acts dealing with plant breeders’ rights, feed, seed, fertilizer, animal health, plant protection, monetary penalties, ag marketing programs and farm debt mediation.

Regular readers will know of course that I am generally leery of things undertaken by Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

From the first step into Parliament by Ritz and Prime Minister Stephen Harper the government has had a political agenda around agriculture, and have forged ahead often with question tactics being employed.

It is difficult not to applaud the determination of Ritz and company in the sense they have a vision, and are dedicated to implementing that vision for farming by any means possible.

But having a vision does not ensure the vision is a good one.

And you should at least be willing to give people a look at exactly what changes you want to make so some analysis of the impact of those changes can be undertaken.

One of the problems of so-called omnibus legislation is the sheer scope of what is being dealt with in the Act.

The more broadly based proposed changes are, and in this case they cross through a number of areas dealing with regulatory issues and industry standards, the more difficult even basic understanding is.

It is difficult to offer constructive criticism, or even reasonable support when there are so many possible outcomes associated with such a broad stroke piece of legislation.

Couple that with the tendency of this government to push through legislation limiting debate in the process, and farmers are likely to face dramatic changes they were not even fully aware were in the Act.

“This legislation will fundamentally restructure agriculture in ways that will profoundly affect farmers, their rural communities and the food system they supply. Its effects will reach far beyond agriculture,” stated Jan Slomp, NFU National President in a release. “Amending the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act to align with the requirements of UPOV ‘91 (the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) instead of UPOV ’78 will devastate farmers’ ability to save, sell and reuse seed. At the same time, greater corporate control over every aspect related to seed will mean farmers pay much higher seed prices.”

Now I appreciate the NFU is about as politically opposite the Conservatives as you can get, and that as an organization it too has an agenda it is unwavering from, so their position must be taken with grain of salt.

But their question is one which should at least be acknowledged, and answered as the Act progresses.

And there are no doubt a long list of other concerns from farmers, many not tied to an agenda quite as much as the NFU.

For such an important Act as this one is, Ritz and company should be eager for feedback, since farmers often understand what is reasonable for them far better than politicians and their Ottawa-bound staff.

To not have a long, public debate about this Act has to leave the question what the government does not want to eye of public review to see.

That may only be a perception of the situation, but perception often ends up being reality, and we should expect better of government.

If the changes have the merit Ritz believes, let him tell the details, answer concerns, and move forward with legislation made better by the effort of open dialogue with those about to be affected by the changes.

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