OTTAWA - The federal ethics watchdog is looking into conflict-of-interest complaints against some Tory MPs, which have the potential to scupper the Harper government's plans to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board.
Both the NDP and Liberals have written Mary Dawson alleging that a number of Conservative MPs are involved in grain farming and therefore stand to personally benefit from elimination of the board's marketing monopoly on wheat and barley.
As a result, the opposition parties say, those MPs should not be allowed to debate or vote on the measure.
New Democrat MP Pat Martin said Monday he's identified at least seven Tories who are, in his opinion, clearly in a conflict of interest. Two more may be in conflict.
And he said there are likely more who would indirectly benefit from ending the wheat board monopoly, which the Tories maintain will result in western farmers being paid higher prices for their crops.
"These (seven) are just the people that are directly putting seeds in their ground and harvesting grain. Other people that are peripherally associated with the grain industry or their families have to recuse themselves," Martin said.
If 11 or more Conservatives were forced to recuse themselves, the government would no longer have majority support for dismantling the board. The opposition parties oppose the move.
Under the conflict-of-interest code for members of Parliament, MPs are not supposed to debate or vote on a question in which he or she has "a private interest." Furthering one's private interest is described as an action which increases or preserves the value of an MP's assets or increases an MP's income.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz dismissed the opposition complaints, noting that the code also provides an exemption on issues of broad, general application. He said it's ludicrous to suggest no western farmer can vote on the wheat board bill.
"Using this ridiculous analogy is equivalent to saying a taxpayer can not vote on a budget because it decreases the taxes they pay," Ritz said in comments issued by his office.
He said all Conservative MPs will vote on the matter.
"Our party will be standing up and voting as the only party that truly represents western Canada. We will be voting to give farmers the marketing freedom they want and deserve — the same freedom that farmers enjoy in Ontario."
However, the matter did not seem so immediately cut and dried to the independent ethics commissioner, who received a complaint from the Liberals on Friday and the NDP on Monday.
Jocelyne Brisbois, a spokesperson for Dawson, said the watchdog "is considering whether the bill with respect to the Canadian Wheat Board's role in marketing grain for farmers is a matter of general application."
"That said, if a member has a specific concern about their own interest, they are always encouraged to contact our office," Brisbois added.
Martin said a bill that applies only to western grain farmers can't be classified as having a general application.
"Less than 0.2 of one per cent of Canadians farm grain and in the Prairie region we're talking about 60,000 people, of which seven or eight of these (Tory) guys are part of this very narrow group that will benefit directly ... from abolishing the Canadian Wheat Board."
When the federal government bailed out General Motors and Chrysler two years ago, Martin said, two Tory MPs who owned car dealerships recused themselves from voting on the matter — even though neither dealership involved Chrysler or GM.
"They both recused themselves from the vote because that would have material benefit to the industry that they represent. This (wheat board matter) is a far more direct connection and a direct conflict of interest, in my view," Martin said.
The opposition parties had hoped for a ruling before Monday evening, when the bill to dismantle the wheat board was to be put to a second reading vote. It must still be studied by a Commons committee before returning to Parliament for a final vote.
During debate on the bill, a number of Tory MPs have made no secret of their personal interest in the matter.
"A home, we farm about 3,000 acres," said Rob Merrifield, an MP from Yellowhead, Alta, told the Commons last week.
"I have a son who is looking after it at the present time. ... He asks me why he is getting a world price for canola outside the board but not getting a world price for wheat, which is in the board."
Merrifield also told the Commons frankly that he's "biased" about the wheat board.
"I am going to 'fess up right off the bat that I am a farmer. ... I have produced wheat and barley every year for the last 30 to 40 years and my comments are biased because I will do and say anything I possibly can to support the farm family and agriculture in western Canada."
Leon Benoit, MP for Vegreville-Wainwright in Alberta, told the Commons he owns farm land in Alberta and Saskatchewan which he rents to seven farmers, all of whom he said are "excited" about eliminating the wheat board.
"For me personally and for my friends and my neighbours, it would be terrific to know that for wheat I grow next year I can contract that right after this legislation passes and I can lock in a price for next fall. ... To me, this has a personal impact right now as well," Benoit said.
Earl Dreeshan, MP for Red Deer, Alta., said he's been filling out wheat board permits for the last 40 years "and I know the types of things that have happened and the concerns that we have in central Alberta."
Saskatchewan MP David Anderson said owns farmland, too, and recounted how the person who's renting it was forbidden by the board to sell some of his durum wheat to a buyer in the United States.