WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Friday he hopes the Conservative government can end the Canadian Wheat Board's barley monopoly by August 1, 2008, either by regulation or legislation.
But the "specter" of a spring election could derail that timetable, Ritz told reporters.
"That could be problematic in a time frame to get it done by August 1 of '08," Ritz said.
The farmer-controlled wheat board has a government-mandated monopoly on sales of wheat and barley grown in Western Canada to millers, maltsters and export markets.
The government had tried to end the monopoly by regulation as of August 1, 2007, but a Federal Court judge ruled the move required full legislative approval of the House of Commons, where the Conservatives hold only a minority of seats and must rely on the support of at least one opposition party.
The government has appealed, and Ritz told reporters that the matter would be heard on February 21. However, a spokesman for the Federal Court of Appeal said no date has been set.
A spokesman for Ritz later said February 21 had been a tentative hearing date, but the schedule had changed. A hearing is expected in late February or early March, he said.
Earlier this week, Canadian malting companies, major barley buyers, asked the government to immediately introduce legislation so they could contract directly with farmers for the next barley harvest.
But Ritz said that Ottawa plans to wait for the appeal before moving forward on legislation, and he noted he could not guarantee timing for changes.
"Even introducing legislation at any given point -- there's no way to predetermine how long it's going to be tied up in the House, in committee, and of course, into the Senate, where all good things go to die," Ritz said.
Barley sales accounted for about 11 percent of the C$3.5 billion ($3.5 billion) in revenue for the CWB for the year ended July 31, 2006.
Ritz said he met with top CWB officials this week to discuss new pricing programs for barley.
He said the programs are "on the right track," but he said he asked Ken Ritter, chairman of the CWB's board, and Chief Executive Greg Arason, to consider giving farmers the option of selling directly to buyers within North America.
Ritz also said he hopes to name a new chief executive for the wheat board by December 31.
The government sacked the previous CEO almost a year ago for campaigning against the plan to end the CWB's monopoly. Arason has managed operations as interim CEO since.
A selection committee comprised of five CWB board members and four government representatives has interviewed three candidates for the job and has recommended one name to Ritz.
"It's now my turn to do the interview. It's on their recommendation. They just need me to OK that," Ritz said.
He said it was not essential that the candidate be a proponent of ending the marketing monopoly.
"I guess it would make it easier for us, but at the end of day, I want him putting the best interests of producers at play," he said.
"If it's our plan, so be it. If he's got a hybrid or something else in mind, so be it. I want to look at all the options," Ritz said.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Rob Wilson