Changes to Wheat Board elections eyed

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The Conservative government presented legislation on Friday seeking to change which farmers are eligible to vote for directors of the Canadian Wheat Board, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said.

The Wheat Board holds a legislated monopoly on marketing Western Canada’s wheat and barley, which the government wants to end -- a plan the CWB has opposed. The government and board are both in favor of changing voter eligibility, however.

The legislation, if passed, would limit voting to farmers who have delivered at least 40 tons of grain in any of the past three years.

“This bill will clarify that hobby farmers, retired farmers and farmers who haven’t produced significant amounts of grain in recent years should not be deciding who directs the Canadian Wheat Board,” Ritz said. “This had to be fixed.”

The Wheat Board, made up of 10 directors elected by farmers and five government appointees, is currently seen as having a slim majority in favor of retaining the monopoly. Five of the 10 director positions are up for election this fall.

Ritz said the government sees a strong future for the Wheat Board “in whatever shape” and the new legislation would help farmers influence the debate about the CWB’s marketing monopoly.

“It puts it into farmers’ hands, that’s where we think it belongs,” he said.

Changing voter requirements won’t likely affect the clout of either side in the monopoly debate, said Larry Hill, chairman of the Wheat Board.

“This is about producer control of the CWB and certainly it will be up to producers to make that decision when they fill out their ballots.”

In March, Ritz reaffirmed plans to end the monopoly and allow western farmers to sell wheat and barley to anyone they choose, but he didn’t say how the government would do it.

Removing the board’s monopoly is part of World Trade Organization talks aimed at liberalizing trade.

Ritz said he doesn’t see the government making any moves to end the monopoly prior to the fall Wheat Board elections.

The Conservatives hold only a minority of the seats in the House of Commons, meaning they need the support of another party to pass bills.

The Liberal Party, which is the biggest opposition group, will look closely at the legislation before deciding whether to support it, said Liberal Member of Parliament Wayne Easter. A key question is whether the bill unfairly takes away voting rights from small farmers, he said.

The legislation also aims to speed up Wheat Board payments to farmers by streamlining government approvals.

Reporting by Rod Nickel; editing by Rob Wilson