By Bruce Johnstone, The Leader-Post May 24, 2013


While all eyes are focused on the Senate expense scandal, another Harper government scandal is slowly unfolding right here in Saskatchewan.

The scandal, if you will, is the wholesale dismantling of government institutions, including Canadian Wheat Board, Canadian Grain Commission, Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, Community Pasture Program, Agroforestry Development Centre, to name a few.

The Senate expense scandal may be sexier, seamier and more sensational, but our own government spending scandal may prove to be more damaging in the long-run in the Tory heartland of rural Saskatchewan.

Too much ink has been spilled on the Canadian Wheat Board issue, so I won’t bore you with another account of how Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz went from promising farmers that the government wouldn’t act arbitrarily (i.e., that it would hold a plebiscite on changes to the CWB’s single desk) in March 2011 to the day after the May 2 election, when he announced the government would proceed arbitrarily to eliminate the CWB’s monopoly over export sales of wheat and barley.

And while it’s true that the sky didn’t fall on Aug. 1, 2012, when the monopoly was removed (just as Ritz predicted), the jury is still out on the long-term impact of the elimination of the single desk and the ultimate sale or demise of a much-weakened CWB, which is operating with about one-quarter of the staff it had during the monopoly period when it handled $5 billion to $6 billion in grain sales a year.

For example, there’s growing concern about the viability of producer cars, with the CWB no longer there to allocate producer cars, handle logistics and provide grain handling services at port for the farmer-shippers. Without producer cars, farmers will be paying more — about $1,800 a railcar — to ship their grain to export position.

Talking about costing farmers money, changes to the CGC announced in Bill C-45 are going to cost farmers millions of dollars.

According to the Western Grain Elevator Association and Inland Terminal Association of Canada, federal funding to the CGC will be chopped from $37 million a year to $5.4 million — from 50 per cent to nine per cent. (By comparison, the Federal Grain Inspection Service, which provides similar services as the CGC, is funded 37 per cent by the U.S. federal government.)

At the same time, outward inspection fees are more than tripling to $1.60 per tonne, while elevator licensing fees are increasing 33-fold to $3,300 per year.

So who pays for these cuts and fee increases? You guessed it. The Canadian grain farmer, who will face an added cost of $2,750 on a 5,000-acre farm.

Then there are the cuts to the Community Pasture Program announced in last year’s budget. When Ritz announced the elimination of the 75-year-old program and the transfer of the 1.6 million acres in Crown lands back to the province, livestock producers, environmental groups and the provincial government were shocked the federal government chopped a program dating back to the Dirty Thirties without consultation.

Moreover, the Tories’ plan put at risk 32 species of endangered plants and animals, as well as 10 to 15 per cent of the remaining natural grasslands in Canada. How much money will be saved? About $10 million a year, maybe a third of that in Saskatchewan. Who will foot the bill? Farmers again.

Another program on the Tory chopping block is the Agroforestry Development Centre at Indian Head. The ADC, which was established in 1901, is responsible for growing more than 610 million trees for farmsteads and shelterbelts across Western Canada. Every year, three to five million trees are planted for distribution to 7,000 rural landowners. But thanks to Tory budget cuts, this will be the last year farmers will receive trees from the ADC. The savings? A paltry $3 million a year.

Last week in Saskatoon, Ritz announced tough new rules to prevent outbreaks of E. coli at slaughterhouses, like the one at XL Foods in Brooks last year. The problem is staff cuts to the CFIA will make those tough new rules tougher to enforce.

Saskatchewan voters — more than half of whom voted Tory in the last election — must be wondering what they did to deserve this.

Johnstone is the Leader-Post’s financial editor

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