WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A Canadian judge said he will issue a decision on Wednesday in the Canadian Wheat Board's last-ditch attempt to let farmers, not government, decide whether the board keeps its 68-year-old grain marketing monopoly.
The board and its supporters asked Justice Douglas Campbell in a Winnipeg federal court on Tuesday to declare that Canadian agriculture minister Gerry Ritz broke the law by not consulting the board or holding a farmer vote before moving this autumn to end the board's grain marketing monopoly.
Such a declaration would not compel the government to change course, but it would at least alter perceptions of an issue that Ritz has described as being about "marketing freedom."
The Conservative government's bill to end the monopoly as of August 1, 2012, has passed through Canada's House of Commons and needs senate approval and royal assent before becoming law.
The current law requires that the government consult the board and let farmers vote on any change to which grains fall under the CWB monopoly, which applies to wheat and barley for milling or export.
Canada is the top exporter of spring wheat, durum and malting barley.
The Wheat Board's lawyers argued that changes to the law in 1998 under a Liberal government give farmers the authority to decide changes to the monopoly, while the government maintains the law isn't so broad. The CWB also said that Agriculture Minister Ritz and other Conservatives created "legitimate expectations" leading up to last spring's election that the monopoly would stay unless farmers decided otherwise in a vote.
"This is all about fairness and the minister's conduct was unfair and contrary to the law," said Wheat Board lawyer John McDougall.
A newspaper in March 2011, prior to the May election, quoted Ritz as saying at a farm meeting in Manitoba that "unless the farmers make a democratically voted change (to the CWB), no legislation will be introduced."
Since the election, Ritz has said that the Conservatives' near sweep of electoral areas in the CWB region suggests farmers agree with his party's long-held position that the monopoly should end.
Federal government lawyer Robert MacKinnon called the CWB's case an "improper attempt to interfere with the legislative process" and asked the judge to dismiss the case.
Parliament has the right to replace or change laws passed by previous governments, or else there would essentially be a "dead hand" over lawmakers, he said.
If the court rules the government acted illegally, it is unclear what would happen to its plans. It could appeal the decision and continue to push its bill toward becoming law. Or, as the Wheat Board hopes, it could call a vote by farmers.
The Wheat Board conducted a non-binding vote of farmers this summer, which showed most want to keep the wheat monopoly and a slim majority favor keeping the barley monopoly.
Holding a vote would likely take months and jeopardize plans to end the monopoly as of August 1. Private grain handlers like Viterra, Cargill and Richardson International Limited are preparing to sign farmers to forward price contracts for next year's wheat and barley crops as soon as the bill becomes law.
Farmers start making spring seeding plans early in the new year.
Wheat Board chairman Allen Oberg told reporters that the CWB hasn't decided if it will appeal if the court doesn't side with it.
Reporting By Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Gary Hill