The Conservative Party’s Fair-Weather Democrats

With the results of the  Canadian Wheat Board’s 2011 producer plebiscite now in, farmers have given the single-desk for wheat a rousing endorsement with 62% of the votes cast. Despite the vote being held at the end of summer and through a mail-in ballot (which have notoriously low response rates), almost 37,000 farmers participated in the plebiscite. Notwithstanding the will of the majority of wheat-producing farmers to maintain the CWB single-desk, Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz has made it clear that he intends to ignore the wishes of prairie farmers, stating that the federal election is mandate enough for the governing Conservatives to dismantle the single-desk.

Indeed Gerry Ritz has been virtually omnipresent in prairie media over the last few months, continually attacking the legitimacy of the farmers’ plebiscite, calling it “seriously flawed,” and nothing more than an “expensive survey” while vowing that his government will not heed the results, even if a majority of farmers vote to keep the CWB single-desk.

The attack on the legitimacy of the farmers’ plebiscite and the disdain that both Harper and Minister Ritz display for this instance of producer direct democracy is all the more hypocritical due to both Harper and Ritz’s Reform Party history. Ritz was first elected as a Reform party candidate in 1997 while Stephen Harper was also a Reform MP and the Reform Party’s Chief Policy Officer.

Back when both Harper and Ritz were members of the Reform Party, such grassroots initiatives were hailed as the very essence of democracy. Indeed, “direct democracy” was an essential plank in Reform’s electoral platform, as citizens’ plebiscites and referenda were advanced as a means to empower citizens and bypass what the Reform Party viewed as a broken and unaccountable parliament and corrupt party system.

Such instances of “direct-democracy” were preferred due to their “market-like” registration of citizen preference and touted as a way to rejuvenate public interest and participation in democracy.

So it is peculiar that such a champion of “market preference” as Harper would so vehemently oppose the farmers’ plebiscite. Unless, of course, he now believes that parliament’s “broken and corrupt” representative democracy is somehow a superior measure of voters’ preferences? Strange how a majority can do that.

While Harper has not been as vocal an advocate for forms of direct-democracy as he was in the past, it was only as little as six years ago that Harper vowed to “sweep the west” with his plan of direct democracy and electoral reform. Only four short years ago, Harper backed a plan that would have provincial plebiscites determine Senate appointments. Furthermore, the last CWB plebiscite, ordered and controlled by the Harper Conservatives, was deemed a perfectly acceptable means to decide the fate of the Wheat Board, despite being littered with a litany of dirty tricks that would make Machiavelli blush.

(Bonus question: How was the current Conservative Party of Canada formed? Answer: By plebiscite approving the merger of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives)

So what has changed that these former staunch advocates of direct democracy are now so opposed to that which they used to hail as the very essence of a citizens’ democracy? As the results revealed today suggest, Harper and Ritz seem less concerned with democracy and more concerned with ensuring their own desired outcome; an outcome prairie farmers have patently refused.

It seems Harper and Ritz only welcome forms of direct democracy when it suits them and they feel the process can be controlled; they may want to remember that the origin of the plebiscite in Western Canada was the result of what author Gordon Laird calls “the rebellious impulses of pissed-off farmers.” If the Conservatives continue to dismiss the democratic will of prairie farmers, they may very well become the next target of those “rebellious impulses.”


Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University.


  1. Watching BNN on this tpic, and I’m quoting

    What does this mean for investors and ag stocks in Canada?

    Brett Harriss, Calgary bureau: “It’s great news if in fact the wheat board is scrapped, great news for the big grain handlers….”
    He goes on to talk about how this will boost earnings of these big grain handlers in range of 6 to 9% (“could make them a takeover target”), more access of these big players to rail cars, access to which has been controlled by the Wheat Board. New companies from south of the border, like Bunge Limited, have there interested piqued, many of which are not publicly traded companies, but multinational.
    Watch the segment here:

    This reminds me of the run up to the creation of the Progressive Party in the 1920s. A key irritant was small farmers not able to get their product to market during a bumper crop harvest because the privately owned railways wouldn’t invest in more railway cars.
    Hello commodity prices shooting up.
    Hello freezing out small players.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santanyana

  2. Ritz justifies his attempt to disembowel the Canadian Wheat Board by saying that farmers will still be able to use the Board if they want to, while knowing full well that the single selling desk is the asset that makes the Board work. It makes international grain buyers pay more for a quality product that they can trust.

    Lets say a farmer wants to sell through the Board. The Board then would have to go cap in hand to the companies that they just competed with for the deal, and ask them to receive the grain, put it on a train, store it in their port facilities and put it on a boat. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this system won’t work long. It will benefit the big grain companies, to the eventual detriment of Western Canadian farmers.
    At that point, Ritz will say “well the CWB must not be any good, if they can’t compete in a dual market”.

    Ritz continues to undermine the Canadian Wheat Board by making it seem he is doing farmers a great favour by giving them “freedom to choose”. That phrase is just code for “lets get the CWB out of the way so our corporate friends can dominate the Canadian food system.”

    The CWB markets grain into the international marketplace and returns all but 9 cents per bushel to the farmer. What fool thinks that the Cargills, Bunges, ADMs of the world, operating in the same marketplace, will be so generous.

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