Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CWB plebiscite less than it seems

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When I was a student at the University of Manitoba, most us got to the Fort Garry campus by public transit. At the time the transit company was privately owned by the Winnipeg Electric Company and there was an ongoing battle between the students and the company related to the level of services.

The student newspaper, The Manitoban, published a sarcastic article wherein it was stated the transit company was complaining of vandalism by students who damaged the seats of the vehicles.

The authority said it intended to retaliate by removing the seats from the university-bound buses. In order to demonstrate its good faith, the company said it would conduct a plebiscite among the students, giving them the opportunity to voice their opinion before it took any action.

The announcement then ended with the statement: "The plebiscite will be taken, the results will be announced, and the seats will be removed."

Supporters of the Canadian Wheat Board are now accusing the federal government of acting in a similarly arbitrary and undemocratic manner by ignoring the Canadian Wheat Board-sponsored plebiscite that polled farmer opinion on the continued monopoly position of the board with respect to the marketing of wheat and barley in the Prairie provinces.

The plebiscite has been held, the results have been announced, and the monopoly position of the board will be terminated. This despite 62 per cent of the voters supporting the board with respect to wheat and 51 per cent supporting the monopoly with respect to barley.

But before we jump to the conclusion of making inappropriate analogies, some consideration should be given to important features of this case that make such comparisons meaningless.

First, the Canadian Wheat Board used its resources to advance a political position, which it had no mandate to do. The wheat board is responsible for the marketing of grain and should not be involved in the question of whether it should continue to have the legislative powers, which come from the government of the country. The government created the wheat board and whether it will continue is a political decision. As the saying goes: "The legislature giveth, and the legislature taketh away."

In addition, what is being voted on is whether the majority of a group of farmers can decide that the freedom of those who disagree with them can be removed.

It is probably correct to say, as the wheat board will argue, that unless there is a single desk to which all farmers are required to market their grain, the effectiveness of the CWB will be reduced and it might even be forced out of business. But is this reason enough to deny a freedom to which most Canadians are entitled as of right?

The true magnitude of the vote should also be assessed. Only 55 per cent of those eligible cast their ballots. That means only 34 per cent of eligible farmers voted in favour of a wheat monopoly and about 26 per cent in favour of a barley monopoly.

Since many people who would have voted negatively knew the government was going to legislate, it is likely they saw no need to cast a ballot in what had been described as a useless gesture.

Should 34 per cent and 26 per cent respectively have the right to say that 100 per cent will be denied the right to operate as do their fellow Canadians in Ontario and Quebec, who are not subject to wheat board control?

Then again, the vote was only open to those who have been engaged in the marketing of wheat and barley. It is reasonable to assume that some farmers gave up these crops because they didn't want to subjected to wheat board control.

As Lenin said of the Russian soldiers who deserted the front in the First World War: "They voted with their feet." If those votes were counted, it could well turn out that a small minority of the relevant farmers actually prefer to be subjected to a controlled rather than a free market.

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2011 A10

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