Voting for change

by Teresa Acklin
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Western Canadian wheat, barley farmers vote to liberalize grain marketing in Canada, but change is not imminent.

   Grain producers in the western Canadian province of Alberta have voted to end the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing monopoly on wheat and barley. However, no changes in Canada's grain marketing system are likely to result, at least in the short term.

   The Alberta plebiscite, conducted over 10 days in November, was ordered after a motion to conduct the vote was unanimously approved by the Alberta legislature. Some producers and farm groups in the western provinces want the right to sell wheat and barley on the open market; under current Canadian law, they may sell only to the C.W.B., which is the sole entity allowed to sell the country's wheat and barley on the world market.

   Proponents of the measure stressed that they were not calling for an end to the C.W.B., but for a dual-marketing system. Such a system, they said, would accommodate customers whose more specialized needs are difficult for the C.W.B. to coordinate, as well as importers who prefer dealing with the grain selling agency.

   The question put to farmers asked if they supported “having the freedom to sell” their wheat and barley to any domestic or export buyer, including the C.W.B. About 40% of eligible farmers voted in the plebiscite, with 62% of wheat producers and 66% of barley producers responding affirmatively.

   Under the legislative motion setting the plebiscite, the affirmative vote authorizes the province to request that the Canadian government amend the C.W.B. Act. But the federal government is not bound by the vote.

   Indeed, Ralph Goodale, Canadian minister of agriculture and agri-food, stated that he would not honor the outcome of the plebiscite. A government panel appointed in July 1995 is reviewing the nation's grain marketing structure, and Mr. Goodale said the recommendations of that panel would guide decision making on the future of Canadian grain marketing.

   C.W.B. officials themselves criticized the plebiscite and its results. They cited the ambiguity of the question, which they said was worded to elicit a “yes” response, and challenged the underlying assumption that the C.W.B. could survive in a dual market. They also noted that fewer than half of the eligible producers actually voted — just under 16,000 out of 35,000 — and they questioned the security and integrity of the voting system.

   Farmers at least 18 years old who produced wheat and/or barley in one of the past three years and maintained a financial interest in the crop were eligible to vote. Ballots were cast at polling stations or were submitted by mail.