OTTAWA - It took nearly seven years in government but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has finally achieved his goal of passing legislation to eliminate the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on prairie grain sales.
But whether he can act on it is still up in the air.
Bill C-18 was passed at third and final reading in the Senate Thursday with the support of all the Conservatives present. The Liberals, and Independent Senator Jean-Claure Rivest voted against the bill. Independent Senator Anne Cools abstained.
"The Conservatives believe in setting the western farmers free," said Manitoba Conservative Sen. Don Plett. "It’s a great day for Western Canada."
Shortly after the vote, Gov. Gen. David Johnston gave the bill royal assent. Liberal Leader Bob Rae and CWB chair Allen Oberg had both written to Johnston asking him not to give the bill royal assent while the courts are considering the legality of the bill.
However that has not happened in Canada, and few believed Johnston would heed the calls.
With royal assent and then the government immediately proclaiming the bill, it means the farmer-elected directors of the CWB are out of their jobs and farmers can begin forward contracting their grain sales with whatever grain company they wish. The actual monopoly won’t be lifted allowing for the sales to proceed outside the CWB until August 2012.
The next steps for the bill are in doubt however as a court prepares to hear a case from the CWB requesting an injunction against the bill being implemented. The request was filed in Manitoba court Wednesday and the first hearing is scheduled for today.
It’s unclear whether the hearing will be just to determine the date to hear arguments regarding the injunction or whether the judge will want to hear those arguments tomorrow. If it is the former, the CWB directors hope the judge will issue a temporary injunction until the full hearing takes place.
Last week, a federal court judge issued a declaration Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was offending the rule of law by introducing legislation which did not comply with the Canadian Wheat Board Act. The existing act requires the minister to consult with the CWB directors and hold a plebiscite among CWB producers before making changes to the CWB monopoly.
Ritz has declared the general election last spring served as the only vote he needed since the vast majority of CWB ridings voted for Conservative MPs.
Justice Douglas Campbell disagreed.
However the ruling did not specifically address the viability of the bill which meant debate and votes on it could and did proceed.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gerry Ritz said they planned to push on with the bill because the courts cannot prevent Parliament from passing legislation.
Queen’s University professor and parliamentary procedural expert Ned Franks said the courts can however prevent the government from acting on legislation as long as it is a matter before the courts.
The federal government has appealed Campbell’s ruling.
Plett said Thursday he fears some farmers might be confused about what to do but said farmers should proceed as if the bill is law unless they are told otherwise.
"I don’t know what the judge in Manitoba is going to say," he said. "Am I concerned about a judge’s ruling against the wishes of western farmers? Absolutely."
Plett said he believes the government’s chances at the appeal of Campbell’s ruling are quite good.