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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A judge ruled on Wednesday that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz broke the law by not consulting with the Canadian Wheat Board or holding a farmer vote before moving to end the board's grain marketing monopoly.
The Federal Court's decision does not have the power to derail a government bill to end the monopoly on marketing wheat and barley from Western Canada, but it gives the Wheat Board ammunition in its public relations campaign calling for Ottawa to let farmers decide the CWB's fate.
"Had a meaningful consultative process been engaged to find a solution which meets the concerns of the majority, the present legal action might not have been necessary," Justice Douglas Campbell wrote in his decision. "... The minister will be held accountable for his disregard for the rule of law."
The current law requires that the government consult with the board and let farmers vote on any changes to the types of crops that fall under the CWB's monopoly. The government's lawyers argued that those requirements don't apply to a broader change, such as eliminating the monopoly, but the judge called that line of reasoning "an absurdity."
The government said it will appeal the decision and continue to push forward its legislation, formally called Bill C-18, to end the monopoly and restructure the Wheat Board as a smaller, optional grain marketer in an open market.
"At the end of the day, this declaration will have no effect on continuing to move forward on freedom for Western Canadian farmers," Ritz told reporters. "Bill C-18 will pass."
Ritz said the government will make no changes to the bill and expects it to become law by the end of the year.
The Conservative government's bill to end the monopoly as of August 1, 2012, has passed through the House of Commons and needs Senate approval and royal assent before becoming law.
Wheat Board chairman Allen Oberg, scheduled to speak to a Senate committee on Thursday, said he will ask senators to block the government bill until there is a farmer vote.
"We're saying to government that they should do what they should have done in the first place, and that's hold a vote among farmers," Oberg told Reuters from Ottawa. "It seems this minister is bent on short-circuiting democracy any way he can."
It could make for bad politics if the government is seen as operating outside the law, but the decision may ultimately make little difference, said one political science professor.
"Whenever you get slapped on the wrist by the courts, it's not a good day for you," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba. "But Ritz is long past the point of worrying about some bad publicity. The government has its majority and it's prepared to pay a short-term political price for this."
Liberal politician Ralph Goodale, a former cabinet minister, said that as a matter of course Ritz would have received legal advice showing the consequences of what he was planning to do.
"It was one of the clearest legal judgments I've ever read ... The behavior the minister chose to follow is an affront to the rule of law," Goodale told Reuters.
But Ritz said "you'd have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to understand" the judge's statement and said the government broke no law.
Besides pushing ahead with the bill, Ottawa could alternatively decide to hold a farmer vote, on its own terms, or move to amend the current law's requirement for a farmer vote before final approval of its new legislation.
Either scenario would mean delays, however. Grain handlers are already set to sign farmers to forward price contracts for their 2012 crops once the bill passes, and the ICE Futures Canada exchange is preparing to launch new wheat and durum derivatives in January, based on the monopoly's end.
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.
The case, heard Tuesday in a Winnipeg Federal Court, likely represents the last chance for the Wheat Board and its supporters to stop the government from ending the CWB's marketing monopoly on Western Canada's wheat and barley for milling or export.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Rob Wilson