Depending on your perspective, the core review of the Agriculture Land Commission and the land reserve itself is either clumsy politicking at its worst, or a cleverly engineered campaign with a hidden agenda.
Either way, the review process has not been good for the public, nor will it benefit agriculture. In fact, there are some who doubt that was even the intent. Some food security and environmental activists believe the real agenda is to ensure that Liquefied Natural Gas pipelines can be built over agricultural land.
Bill 24 limped into the legislature like an ugly and unloved dog that no one quite has the heart to kill. The bill was conceived after some very closed door talks with industry groups like the BC Agriculture Council and the BC Fruit Growers. How closed? Well, attending reps had to actually sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement to make sure the foolish public didn’t learn what was being discussed!
When that ugly dog emerged from the ensuing process, the BC Agriculture Council quickly came out in flat-out opposition.
“The council cautiously supported the legislation when it was tabled, based on verbal information,” explained new president Stan Vander Waal. “After reviewing the actual legislation, and hearing farmers’ and ranchers’ concerns, the council had no choice but to withdraw its support.”
Without getting into the not-so-fine details, Bill 24 Version 1.0 sought to maintain the ALR’s protection in certain areas, like the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and the Okanagan, but weaken those protections in the rest of the province. Suddenly, there’s a two-tier system, and farmers on both sides of the divide were not happy about this unlevel playing field.
Food security advocates like the BC Food Systems Network (who, by the way, were not invited to the ‘public consultation’ process) pointed out a lot of BC’s best growing land is covered under the weaker Zone 2 regulations. They argue this weakens BC’s long-term food security, and commitment to agriculture as an industry.
With farmers on the war path, newly appointed Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick sensibly announced he would be doing a full review of the Bill, and consulting the public. “The opportunity is everything from amending the bill to leaving it alone to removing the bill,” said Letnick. “I’m not finished my consultation process.”
Well, that didn’t last long. Letnick was quickly grabbed by the scruff of the neck by Bill Bennett, whose task it was to both create and push that ugly dog into law.
“Government is not interested in fundamentally changing or delaying the bill,” Bennett declared. “The bill will pass.”
So much for consultation. So much for public opinion.
However, Letnick did manage to make enough minor changes to the bill to get some grudging support from the BCAC. In their latest statement, the BCAC says they’re not happy with the general direction of the bill, but accept Letnick’s promise to consult on how the legislation is phased in.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get everything we asked for, said Vander Waal. “The council remains firmly opposed to fracturing the reserve into two zones. The council supports a one-zone system that provides reasonable opportunities for regional representatives to consider community need.”
So, the government has tied a pretty pink bow on it, but that just means Bill 24 is an ugly dog with a pretty bow. There is really no one connected to agriculture - either as a producer or a consumer - who supports the intent of this bill. The bill itself does not even pretend to address the real concerns of farmers who would like to use their land more efficiently by creating value-added products.
Opposition critic Nicholas Simons rightly says the process was flawed from Day One.
“I’ve been talking to members of the government caucus about this, and my sense is that they’re concerned about the legislation as well and I just hope that they have the strength to stand up to the minister. This was done badly,” said Simons. “This is probably the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in this house.”
The truth is, a real reform of the ALR would not be a bad idea. Just as the Liberal’s recent review of liquor laws has created new opportunities for both grape growers and alcohol producers, so a thoughtful review of the ALR and agricultural policy in general could have created new opportunities in our third largest resource sector.
Instead, what we got was an ill-conceived, poorly thought out Bill that has been conceived largely behind closed doors, and doesn’t reflect the real needs of farmers or the BC public.
I’ve said it before, and sadly, I’ll probably have to say it again; the ALR review has to go back to square one, with a process that includes ALL the stakeholders, not just a couple of riled up MLAs and a few agricultural reps whose advice is ignored anyway. In the meantime, it would be fair to say this government has lost the confidence of both growers and consumers. One has to hope Letnick is prepared to work very hard to get that trust back.