Farmers for economic freedom
Updates from the Canadian Farm Enterprise Network, Canadian Farmers for Justice and the Prairie Centre. Several of the items appearing here originally appeared in an email list operated by Dwayne Leslie at http://www.prairielinks.com.
web posted May 22, 2000
Compiling the story of your life
By Craig Docksteader
The recent revelation of the existence of a massive government database that tracks information about ordinary Canadians has stirred concerns over the issue of individual privacy and government secrecy.
Bruce Phillips, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, revealed the existence of the database in his annual report to Parliament, calling it an extraordinarily detailed database. It apparently contains stats on almost every person in Canada with as many as 2,000 pieces of information about each persons education, ethnic origin, marital status, mobility, disabilities, income tax, employment and social assistance history.
Successive Privacy Commissioners had repeatedly assured Canadians that no such database existed, because until now they were unaware of its long reach.
For many Canadians, the revelation is troubling. Although government collects lots of information in the course of its work, it has no legitimate mandate to begin compiling the information into one gigantic database. Not even for the purpose of "research". If, as the government claims, it simply wants to know how its policies affect Canadians, why dont they just ask us? Isnt that how the democratic system is supposed to work?
Furthermore, Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), the federal department that is compiling the information, regularly shares the information with others. It can go to non-government organizations conducting research, private sector firms doing planning, needing statistics, conducting research or evaluations, or be used for internal audit purposes. The names of individuals are supposed to be masked, but can be unmasked when needed.
The deeper you dig, however, the more interesting it gets. The government publication Info Source reveals that HRDC regularly obtains information from many other government departments and agencies including the Canadian Wheat Board. Information contained in CWB advance payment records, delivery records, payment records and permit records are routinely shared with both Revenue Canada and HRDC. Although the CWB retains these records for only three to seven years, HRDC never throws out any info that gets into its monster database.
Its possible that no harm would ever come from this accumulation of personal information. The database (called the "Longitudinal Labour Force File") has already been around since at least 1971, and so far the public is unaware of any leaks or breaches in security.
Nonetheless, the very existence of such a record could be considered a breach of personal privacy in and of itself. Canadians were never told their personal information would be compiled in such a manner that it would be possible to profile their lives in detail. When you add to this the fact that the most high-security databases in the world are routinely cracked by computer hackers, you have an unacceptable situation.
There is perhaps one bit of solace for Canadians, albeit small. Thats the fact that HRDC is subject to the federal Privacy Act. Not that this means the information is necessarily secure (its the Privacy Commissioner of Canada who is most concerned about it), but rather, it gives every Canadian citizen the legal right to access information about them that is held by the federal government.
In other words, you can make an application to find out what information is contained on HRDCs database about you. There is no charge for an application, and the process is simple. To get started, all you need to do is contact the HRDC Privacy Coordinator at 1-819-953-3384, or visit the Prairie Centres web site at http://www.prairiecentre.org/ where you can find detailed directions.
Maybe if HRDC receives thousands of requests from individuals looking for a copy of their personal information the federal government will begin to get the message: Unnecessarily and secretly compiling personal information strikes at the very heart of concerns about intrusive, elitist and unaccountable government.
web posted May 15, 2000
Taking a second look at Collenettes transportation reforms
By Craig Docksteader
It was with mixed emotion that many producers reviewed the details of Transport Minister Collenettes plans to improve the western grain handling and transportation system. While delighted that the federal government finally decided to do something, there is a gnawing concern that it may have been better to do nothing. Quite frankly, the package to reform the system could very well do more harm than good.
There was, of course, no hint of this in Collenettes press release. To the casual observer, the claims of improving the system and saving farmers money will be taken at face value.
In actual fact, if you reworked the federal governments press release to reflect the probable impact of the changes, it might read something like this:
-- NEWS RELEASE --
For Release May 10, 2000
Government of Canada Announces Measures to Erode Western Grain Handling and Transportation System Ottawa - Transport Minister David Collenette, together with Ralph Goodale, Minister of Natural Resources and Minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, and Lyle Vanclief, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food today announced the governments intention to introduce measures to reduce efficiency and increase costs in Canadas grain handling and transportation system.
"After three years of consultations, including the Estey Report and the Kroeger Report, we have been unable to find a consensus on how to reform Canadas grain handling and transportation system," said Mr. Collenette.
"Cabinet has found itself confused and divided on the issues, unable to discern good advice from bad. Nonetheless, we are proceeding with changes which will be implemented for the 2000-01 crop year."
Reforms to be implemented by August 1, 2000 include the following:
1. The establishment of a revenue cap that provides for an annual
estimated $178 million reduction in railway revenues, which represents an estimated 18 percent reduction in grain freight rates. Although this will save farmers money in the short term, the federal government recognizes it wont provide better transportation. In fact it could leave producers waiting for a train that isnt coming.
2. The federal government will make it illegal for the tariff rates on
single car movements originating on branch lines to exceed main line tariff rates for similar movements by more than three per cent. This will help ensure that keeping grain-dependent branchlines open will make no economic or business sense whatsoever, thereby preventing the railways from unnecessarily delaying their closure.
3. Since a conflict of opinion exists over whether the Canadian Wheat
Board should tender the shipment of grain to port, the decision was made to make no decision. Instead, the federal government has decided to fudge on the issue by kinda implementing it and kinda not. This will ensure that any cost savings that may have been realized should be successfully avoided, while at the same time retaining the existing system of confusion and unaccountability.
4. The government will establish a mechanism of continuous monitoring,measurement and reporting to determine the effects of these changes and the overall performance of the system. This mechanism will be put in place by an independent, private sector third party whose recommendations will then be largely ignored, just like those of Justice Willard Estey and Arthur Kroeger.
web posted May 8, 2000
Transforming the grain industry
By Craig Docksteader
Around the world, the grain industry is changing. From China to Croatia, and Australia to Azerbaijan, there is a clear and deliberate trend toward less regulation, less government control, more private ownership and more market-oriented policies. Almost everywhere you turn, the romance with government-dominated agriculture, that characterized most of the 20th century, is fading.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this trend can be found by looking at what has happened in Argentina over the last seventy years. In the early 1930s, the Argentine government began its slow march toward assuming more and more control of the country's ag sector. In 1933 the government began to take control of storage and handling facilities, including both country and terminal grain elevators. By 1955 it had established a national grain board called the Junta Nacional de Granos (JNG) which maintained price support programs and negotiated government to government sales. In 1973, the JNG was granted the monopoly position of single-desk seller for wheat, maize, grain sorghum, and sunflower seeds, in both the domestic and export market. At this point, government control permeated the industry.
Within a few years, however, things began to change. In 1976 the grain trade was re-opened to private traders. In 1979, the private sector received the go-ahead to construct export facilities and to rent state-owned storage capacity for private use. Government ownership had left producers with a handling system which has been described as "the most expensive and inefficient grain-handling infrastructure of any of the sophisticated grain producing nations worldwide" (World Grain, June 1999).
In the early 1990's, the Argentine government began to extensively deregulate and privatize the grain industry. Improvements began to be made in production, exports, infrastructure and markets, resulting from the elimination of export taxes on grain, an increase in privatization, lowering of tariffs, deregulation of commerce, and the implementation of new marketing tools and a free trade block. By 1992, wheat exporting had been turned over completely into private hands and Argentina's ports had been privatized as well.
Argentina has further changes to make, but the ones made so far are already paying significant dividends. According to World Grain, they have helped lead Argentina into what has become the "greatest agricultural production phase of its history". In 1996, Argentina achieved record production numbers in wheat and maize which was partially made possible by Argentina's ability to be competitive in new markets. By privatizing grain elevators, handling rates dropped. Transferring ownership of much of the transportation and handling system into private hands resulted in major improvements in rail service and port facilities, and freight rates have dropped by 20 per cent to 25 per cent in the grain producing region.
As World Grain noted in a 1998 publication, "Nearly a decade has passed since the onset of the government's economic reform program, and Argentina's agricultural sector has benefited handsomely. Historically among the world's major agricultural powers, Argentina today is more productive and efficient than ever in this area."
Although only one example of many, the Argentine experience demonstrates the repeated observation that while the idea of state-controlled agriculture may sound nice philosophically, it doesn't work practically.
What was supposed to make grain industries profitable and sustainable, caused them to become inefficient, over-priced and unresponsive.
Countries that are beginning to take an objective look at what has happened are making dramatic changes in how their grain industry operates. Those who refuse to do so will continue to pay the price, as economic realities iinvariably trump ideological fantasies.
web posted May 1, 2000
Addressing the concerns of producers
By Craig Docksteader
The agricultural community is carefully watching the progress of a small, inconspicuous law that is currently before the House of Commons. Entitled, "An Act to Amend the Criminal Code", Bill C-17 received first reading in the House on December 1, 1999. Since then it has been slowly gaining the attention of farmers and ranchers across the country who are concerned about it's potential implications.
The Act contains a number of amendments to both the Criminal Code and the Firearms Act. It spells out penalties for taking or attempting to take a police officer's weapon when he or she is engaged in the execution of his or her duty; clarifies what kind of evidence is admissible in certain court proceedings; makes provision for testimony to take place outside the courtroom under specific circumstances; and makes a number of changes to other sections of the Criminal Code.
But the section that has the interest of the ag community concerns cruelty to animals. In part, this section reads as follows: "Everyone commits an offence who (a) causes or, being the owner, permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal; (b) kills an animal or, being the owner, permits an animal to be killed, brutally or viciously, regardless of whether the animal dies immediately; (c) kills an animal without lawful excuse; (d) without lawful excuse, poisons an animal, places poison in such a position that it may easily be consumed by an animal, administers an injurious drug or substance to an animal or, being the owner, permits anyone to do any of those things..."
While the ag community has always opposed cruelty to animals, this proposed amendment raises some concerns because of the potential for it to include normal practices used in animal management, slaughter or husbandry. Anyone who has ever seen cattle dehorned, branded, castrated or slaughtered knows its not a pretty sight. The animal takes no pleasure in any of these practices, yet they are a normal and necessary part of many livestock operations. The lingering question with Bill C-17 is, will future interpretations of what constitutes "unnecessary pain, suffering or injury" be broadened to include these and other practices, making them criminal offenses?
The concern is real and justified. The increased trend toward urbanization means more and more people are removed from the reality of farm life. They enjoy their barbequed steak, but know little about the processes necessary to bring it to their dinner table. Meanwhile, animal rights activists, who want to do away with everything from fishing to pet ownership, are happy to capitalize on this ignorance and turn public opinion against the ag community in order to advance their agenda. There is no question that as it currently reads, the Act is open to misinterpretation by the courts, or manipulation by special interests.
To prevent this, one Alberta organization, the Alberta Farm Care Association, has proposed two simple additions to the law: (1) At the beginning of each subsection, change the wording to read "everyone commits an offence who **without lawful excuse**...". (2) Define exactly what constitutes lawful excuse by copying the wording found in the Alberta Animal Protection Act which reads, "Proof that an activity was carried on in accordance with reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal management, husbandry or slaughter will constitute lawful excuse." These amendments would ensure that the law accomplishes its stated purpose of preventing cruelty to animals, while addressing the legitimate concerns of producers.
web posted April 24, 2000
Not available in Canada
By Craig Docksteader
Ever since the Act was passed in 1982, the Wheat Board has been subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Requests for information are submitted to the FOI officer, along with a small fee, and the information is made available from the Wheat Board, within the designated time period. Information requested could be found in files, manuals, databases, mailing lists or publications, and can include working documents, correspondence, or records such as submissions and reports. Over the years, many people have successfully used the system to obtain information from the Wheat Board.
The FOI law ensures that Wheat Board information is released in a timely, appropriate manner. It clearly lays out the process for obtaining information along with responsibilities, timelines and even fines for those who do not abide by the law. It provides producers, politicians, and the general public the necessary mechanism to evaluate the performance of the Wheat Board and ensure ongoing accountability.
There are, however, appropriate limits on what information can be obtained under the law. The Freedom of Information Act specifically states that, "A body corporate... is exempt from the operation of this Act in relation to documents in respect of the commercial activities of the body corporate."
Commercial activities are clearly defined as: "(a) activities carried on by an agency on a commercial basis in competition with persons other than governments or authorities of governments; or, (b) activities, carried on by an agency, that may reasonably be expected in the foreseeable future to be carried on by the agency on a commercial basis in competition with persons other than government or authorities of governments."
If a record contains this kind of information, the Freedom of Information Act requires that the record be made available after the exempt information has been deleted. This prevents the "commercial sensitivity" issue from being used as a smoke screen to hide all kinds of information behind.
Personal information is also protected. You can get personal information about yourself from the Wheat Board, but not about anybody else. This would include specific salary figures as well as information on job performance, evaluations, etc. This exemption ensures that accountability is achieved while protecting personal privacy.
For 18 years the Wheat Board has operated under the Freedom of Information Act. The ability of producers or the general public to obtain information through the FOI process has not spooked the Wheat Board's customers, nor has it jeopardized the Board's ability to successfully market wheat. It continues to be a significant player in the world wheat export market.
Regrettably, however, this Wheat Board is not the Canadian Wheat Board. It is the Australian Wheat Board. While the Canadian Wheat Board bureaucrats and directors continue to insist that they could not function under Canada's Freedom of Information law (called the Access to Information Act), the Australian Wheat Board has operated this way for almost two decades.
Secrecy advocates and lovers of big government like to tell us that bringing the CWB under the Access to Information Act would destroy the Board. In fact, they've said it so often that many farmers are now convinced it must be true. The Aussie experience tells us it's not. Bringing the CWB under the federal Access to Information Act would enhance the Board, not harm it. Those who insist otherwise might be sincere, but they're sincerely wrong.
Craig Docksteader is Coordinator with the Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agriculture, Inc. "Where Do We Go From Here" is a feature service of the Prairie Centre.
Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agriculture, Inc.
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