March 1, 2008 / 12:30 AM / in 10 years

Canada's barley battle moves into Parliament

REGINA, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - Canada’s minority Conservative government will introduce on Monday a bill to end the Canadian Wheat Board’s barley monopoly by August 1, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Friday.

<p>Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz stands to speak during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa February 27, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

Ritz gave few details about the bill on Friday, but said he hopes to get cooperation from opposition parties to move the bill through Parliament on time for the next barley harvest.

“If we have to use a hammer, we’ll get out a big one,” Ritz told reporters on the sidelines of a rally with farmers who want the ability to sell barley directly to buyers.

To become law, the bill must survive a vote in the House of Commons, where the governing Conservatives hold only a minority of seats, and also pass in the Liberal-controlled Senate.

The three opposition parties have said they support the farmer-run CWB, which controls sales of Western Canadian barley to maltsters and export markets.

Ritz said his government may consider the option of making the vote on the barley bill a matter of confidence. A defeat on a confidence vote would bring down the minority government and trigger an election.

“I don’t think anybody looks at this as a ballot question, but if the Liberals are stupid enough to make it one, then by all means, bring it on,” Ritz said.

The main opposition Liberal Party, which has declined to bring down the Conservatives on other confidence motions, has not said what it would do if the government took that route.

The CWB had C$388 million in revenue from barley sales in the year ended July 31, 2007, a small part of its total wheat-driven revenue of C$4.95 billion ($5.05 billion).

The bill will not touch the wheat monopoly, Ritz said.

It’s the second year of uncertainty for barley in the months leading up to planting and production of the new crop.

Last year, the government tried to end the barley monopoly by regulation, but was stopped at the last minute on July 31 by a court ruling that said it had overstepped its authority.

That ruling was upheld on appeal on Tuesday.

The chairman of the Canadian Wheat Board, which is controlled by elected farmers, said he opposed Ritz’s bill because changes to the CWB’s mandate should be up to farmers.

Ritz has not consulted with the CWB board of directors before legislating change -- a step required by law -- Ken Ritter said in a release.

Ritter also said the government would need to hold a binding referendum with a clear question.

A government vote last year showed more than 62 percent of farmers wanted the CWB either to be optional or out of barley marketing, but some groups complained the poll was flawed.

“It was not a proper referendum by any measuring stick,” Ritter said.

Ritz rejected criticisms of the plebiscite question.

“If the Liberals or NDP or anyone else has trouble understanding that (plebiscite) question, my grandson can help them sound out the big words,” he said.

But Ritz told reporters he wouldn’t be surprised if there were more court challenges against his government’s move.

($1=$0.98 Canadian)

Reporting by Josh Page and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Galloway

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