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Farmers bid farewell to Ag Minister Vanclief

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Let's face it. 2003 was a lousy year for farmers in Canada, especially western Canada. Many farmers faced a crippling drought. Grain prices took their customary nosedive after last year's brief upward fling. And of course, the crowning glory had to be the case of BSE found in an Alberta cow. It dealt a terrible blow to the entire ag industry and is far from over yet.

As such a dismal year winds down, it might be hard to understand the sounds of celebration that reverberated throughout farm communities this past week. But the cries of joy are genuine enough, and celebrate the end, hopefully, of an era - the Vanclief era. I say "hopefully" because, while the man is clearly gone, it remains to be seen if the era is finished.

To dwell on the dislike felt by the farm community for the former Agriculture Minister, Lyle Vanclief, would be uncharitable in this festive Season, but forgivable considering the depth of these feelings. Suffice it to say, the best thing about the retirement of Jean Chretien from his office as Prime Minister is that he took some of his cronies with him.

Paul Martin, the new leader of the Liberal party, and hence the new Prime Minister, comes into office carrying on his back a raft of hopes placed there by farmers. Martin has promised that western Canada will be brought back into the fold and farmers have taken this to mean that the new government will hear them. It would be a welcome change after the attitude of Vanclief's department, which was that farmers were to be told, not listened to.

Bob Speller, the newly appointed Ag Minister, is extremely lucky in one regard. He will have some awfully small shoes to fill. If Speller can even pretend to be interested in the views of western farmers and their farm organizations he will be a cut above the former Minister.

Farm groups expect Speller will be able to do much more than that. Farm leaders I spoke to are optimistic about the appointment. Speller has already gained a reputation as a listener, and seems well liked. If he is listening, one of his first actions will be to get rid of his Deputy Minister, Samy Watson. Watson is widely viewed as the architect of the current attitude toward farmers and of the Agriculture Policy Framework. The APF has been shoved down the throats of resisting farmers and provincial governments. As long as Watson is leading the civil service in the Ag Department, farmers will view it with suspicion and apprehension.

The changes wrought by the Martin government do not end with Agriculture Minister. Also falling was David Collenette, the long serving Transport Minister. While Collenette was not viewed with the animosity that fell on Vanclief, farmers have grown weary of the lack of attention to their transportation complaints.

Chief among these has been the failure of the federal government to deal with the lack of competition between Canada's two national railways. Though changes to the Canada Transportation Act that would enhance competition have long been recommended by government committees and long sought by farm groups and shipper organizations, Transport Canada has sat stony faced. Recent proposals to amend the Act were seen as ineffective at best and more likely to be detrimental to the interests of shippers.

The stated purpose of the Canada Transportation Act is to allow competition, wherever possible, to determine the conditions of price and service for transportation. There are many indications that competition is not functioning very well, not the least being the failure by CP this fall to meet the needs of grain shippers. The new Transport Minister, Tony Valeri, will be urged by farm groups to re-examine the state of competition in the rail industry. Many groups support a policy of reverse-onus open access. The changing of the guard is an opportunity for them to renew this call.

Paul Martin has made the right noises where it comes to western Canada. His appointment of two westerners to the two most senior cabinet positions supports his stated goal of making the west feel like part of the federation. Much more needs to be done, however, and the next months will begin to show us the true face of his government.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net