Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


May 27, 2014

Bill 24 — Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act 2014

S. Simpson: I'm pleased to stand to speak to the amendment to Bill 24, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, 2014. It's a pleasure to get an opportunity to speak to the amendment.

Just to refresh memories about the piece of legislation that we're debating here, which the amendment is proposed to, these dramatic and radical changes to the agricultural land reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission do a number of things. Generally, they do two things that are pretty fundamental.

The first one is to create the two zones. As we know from the debate that we've heard here, the creation of these two zones creates a situation where about 90 percent of the actual acreage — and we'll debate about productivity on the land — falls into zone 2, a zone that allows much more opportunity for land to be extracted from the land reserve and to be used for other purposes. As has been interestingly noted, much of that is in areas where oil and gas development is expected to take place. So that's a dramatic change to take such a significant portion of the land that currently sits in the reserve and radically change its status. That's one of the things Bill 24 does that's pretty fundamental.

The other one is to change to go to regional panels, six regional panels, that will in fact make decisions about land use in six regions of the province. We know that this experiment was tried before and essentially was set aside by the land commission as not very functional, not very workable. They went back to what was largely a commission-driven process for decision-making. Now that's going to fall by the wayside if Bill 24 passes, and you're going to have these panels.

So we have this situation where we have these changes in front of us. It's been a hearty debate in this House, and the debate will continue until we see closure at the end of this week, I suspect — when the government invokes closure to pass this bill without a proper resolution.

The result of these changes is a significant erosion of the agricultural land reserve and a significant diminishing of the powers of the Agricultural Land Commission. The response to that from people in the public has been pretty dramatic. We have heard from large numbers of groups across the province. We've heard from municipalities. Most of the municipal agencies, the authorities — what would be the regional districts — have passed resolutions saying: "Stop what you're doing and talk to us at least."

We've heard that from the agricultural council. The Cattlemen's Association has clearly said: "Stop what you're doing and talk to us before you take this any further." The National Farmers Union has raised issues, and we'll talk a little about their recent correspondence. Other groups like the B.C. Food Systems Network have raised concerns. Letters from academics and scientists have been written to the government saying that this is a big mistake. "You shouldn't be doing this. At least talk to us; at least have a consultation." That's been much of the debate.

The Agricultural Land Commission's chair, Mr. Bullock, has raised serious concerns about how this is all unfolding. So to that, the opposition has moved the amendment that essentially says to send this to a committee, which says that we need to talk about this more, which says with something that has for 40 years been a pretty fundamental piece of what we do, how we do business in this province when it comes to food security, to farming, to agricultural opportunity…. The Agricultural Land Commission and the agricultural land reserve have been the cornerstone and the foundation of that for 40 years.

What people in the province have been saying — and we've heard it over and over — is: "Talk to us about what you're doing before you make these changes." Many of those groups, the stakeholders, the people on the ground who actually do this work — whether it's the membership of the Agriculture Council or the Cattlemen's Association or the National Farmers Union or any number of other groups who are hands-on, front-line in this work — have said that much of what you've proposed here is ill-conceived, and you haven't spoken to us about this.

It's simply not good enough when the minister says: "We'll talk to you after we pass the law." That's not very good practice by anybody's terms. So we have this situation where we don't have any meaningful consultation.

So what has been proposed here in the amendment that we're debating now is to, in fact, refer this to a committee, to send it to the committee to ask that committee to go and do the consultation that has been omitted from this process.

It particularly becomes concerning because I think there was a little bit of hope when the new Minister of Agriculture first received his appointment, which was in the middle of the process of Bill 24. He stood up on the first day and said: "I'm hearing from lots of people, and I'm going to consult. I'm going to talk to people, and everything is on the table. We'll look at significant amendments. We'll look at the viability of the bill in its entirety. We're prepared to put it all on the table and look at that."

That lasted something less than 24 hours, till he was corrected by the Minister for Core Review and of Energy, who said: "Talk to whoever you want, but you're not changing anything." That, essentially, then became the Minister of Agriculture's view.

The Minister of Agriculture stood up in this House then and all of the sudden wasn't talking about a significant consultation before the bill becomes law but instead said he was reading his mail. That's a good thing. The minister should read his mail. But he essentially said he's going to read his mail.

Now, it would be interesting to know — and when he closes debate on this, if he takes a role in here, maybe he can tell us — about how many pieces of correspondence he's received and how many thousands and thousands of those were telling him to stop what he's doing, to stop Bill 24, to stop this process.

My guess is that volume of mail that is sitting on the Agriculture Minister's desk — the pile that says this is a bad idea is a heck of a lot bigger than the pile that says this is a good idea. I suspect it's from some pretty thoughtful people and people with significant expertise in the field or people who make their livelihood out of farming and out of agriculture who are saying: "This is a bad idea."

What we have said in this resolution, in this amendment, is: take it out and do consultation. You know, it's a practice that we should probably be adopting for a whole lot of what we do here.

The reality is this. Even if you believe in Bill 24, even if you support Bill 24, there is nothing pressing about that piece of legislation being passed at the end of this week that wouldn't be just as appropriate in the fall, if you went there. And you would allow a committee, if you would accept this amendment and put a legislative committee in place….

Put a committee in place and give them the mandate to go out around this province and talk to British Columbians, to seek the advice of experts and of stakeholders, to talk to people in local communities in different places in this province that will be affected. Talk to local governments. Take the advice that we're given, and prepare some advice for the minister and for the Legislature about how, in fact, this bill either could be improved or dismissed entirely, if that was the view of the committee.

It would be extremely valuable to do that. There's nothing that's going to happen between now and October or November that is so pressing that this legislation has to be passed this week. It would create the opportunity for that discussion to happen, for a report to come back to the Legislature before the bill is finalized, for a discussion before the bill is finalized and for real input from those on the outside.

It would also — while that process was going on with a committee of the Legislature over the next number of months with the mandate to come back in the fall with some kind of report for this Legislature, based on the results of their findings — provide the Minister of Agriculture some more time to not just read his mail.

It would provide the Minister of Agriculture some significant time to be able to consult, himself, and many of those groups, those stakeholders, those individuals, those communities, those local governments who have a concern about Bill 24 — concern that it is undermining and compromising food security and the agricultural industry in this province — to sit down with him and have a meaningful conversation, to sit down with the minister and talk about the issues that are important to them, and to do it in a way where the clock isn't simply ticking hours. It would provide some days, some weeks, some months to get at this properly.

There are significant questions that are raised by many of these groups. We talked about the academics and soil scientists and the questions they've raised. There has been the discussion about what is going on in California right now around their industries, which we rely on for food security, that are now being compromised because of drought and other issues in California that are changing that availability and price.

We haven't had those discussions, and there's no evidence that the government had looked at those questions in any way, shape or form before bringing forward Bill 24. There has been no assessment or analysis in any way, shape or form of what that means.

We know and we've heard often about issues related to climate change. What we hear about British Columbia when we discuss climate change is that we might actually be, in the short term, a jurisdiction that in some ways benefits. Because of slight changes in climate, we could create growing areas in this province that we hadn't envisioned before or expand the possibilities in growing areas for variety. That's a possibility.

We may find that some of those areas that have been essentially dismissed by the Minister for Core Review and the Minister of Agriculture as not that valuable — i.e., the zone two areas, not that valuable. But we don't know what the value of those areas is going to be, moving forward, and we've seen nothing from the government, nothing from this minister that suggests there has been any assessment done, any analysis done of what the potential is in those areas.

Wouldn't it be worthwhile to have consultation that allowed us to better understand that? Have a committee of the Legislature that could invite the kind of expertise, whether it be from within the ministry or external expertise, and ask for that advice and that direction about what the potential is ten, 20, 30, 40 years out. What are they projecting? We don't have that. Instead, we've got a fairly shortsighted approach being taken by the government here in regard to this.

We know that it's a significant problem. I understand the Premier at the end of April received a letter from the National Farmers Union. In a resolution…. It says: "The National Farmers Union opposed the amendment to the Agricultural Land Commission being proposed in Bill 24." I want to talk a little about some of their advice. They're a pretty thoughtful bunch, and they've sent a six-page letter to the Premier that lays out their concerns.

The resolve at their recent convention in 2013…. The resolution that was passed was: "whereas the agricultural land reserve was set up to protect viable farmland in B.C., and whereas the current provincial government has initiated a process to dismantle or weaken the ALR and allow agricultural land to be fully developed and mined, be it resolved that the National Farmers Union publicly acknowledge that the agricultural land reserve is a model that should be replicated across Canada and maintained and strengthened in B.C. "

Here they've said, as one of the groups that should be part of this consultation and part of this discussion, that it, in fact, should get more attention and more support. They raise that for a number of reasons. They certainly have the concern that they've raised about the notion of splitting up the province into two zones and, also, the panel structure.

To give you an indication of the kind of discussion that you would see in a consultation, I suspect, I just want to give you a quote from their letter around this.

"The NFU opposes the creation of zones and the permanent-panel structure. All farmland in B.C. is important and needs to be protected, regardless of location or the type of development pressure placed upon it. The ALR was set up as an institution for the benefit of the whole province, and thus, the overall farmland protection values need to be reflected in decision-making, regardless of location.

"By delegating the Agricultural Land Commission's full jurisdiction to the small regional panels — some as few as two individuals who reside within the region — there is clear danger that local development pressures could influence the panel members and that the overall vision of the commission would be diluted and/or fragmented over time. Local interests need to be balanced by broader interests, and there's a high risk of losing that balance when the full power of the commission can be exercised by so few people."

That's what they said. The other thing that they said that is particularly important to this discussion we're having today — around the amendment that calls for sending this to a committee — is when they talk about the process that we've undergone. I'd like to quote what they've said about that.

"The National Farmers Union would also draw attention to the undemocratic manner in which this bill has been brought forward. The ALR is a longstanding institution in B.C., one that helps define the province's character as well as its land use and economy.

"Any change to such an important element calls out for a comprehensive and inclusive public process. Farmers should be at the forefront of any discussion about the future of farmland, since without land it is not possible to farm. Yet there have been no public consultations. B.C. farmers and other B.C. residents have not had a proper opportunity to be involved in a full public debate on this matter of vital interest."

These comments, made by the Farmers Union in a letter to the Premier on April 30, have been echoed time and time again by British Columbians, whether it be by British Columbians who work directly in the industry or by British Columbians who simply are concerned about food security issues and are concerned about how that unfolds.

They see us compromising an institution. At a time when we look at the issues of climate, when we look at the issues of the changing climate, the effect that it will have on us long term, the last thing that we should be doing is taking away what have been very effective and fundamental tools that allow us to be able to address those issues. The agricultural land reserve was clearly one of those tools that ensured that we in fact protected the land that we need for farming moving forward — something that's had broad support.

We know that there just hasn't been much discussion on this. We'll go back. The Minister for Core Review said to me in estimates, in his estimates the other day, that the government had looked at the tens of thousands of pages of documents that Mr. Bullock…. When he prepared his report, which was a fairly comprehensive report on the state of the ALR, he made a series of recommendations that are not at all consistent with Bill 24. The suggestion somehow from the Minister for Core Review was that all of that had been considered.

Of course we then learned afterwards that that wasn't in fact the case, that in fact those documents and all of those documents that Mr. Bullock had put together hadn't been considered. There was some suggestion that ministry staff had been following Mr. Bullock around, taking their own notes, and that those notes had been considered. It sounds much like a bit of grasping at straws, about making claims that there wasn't the substance to back up. That's what it seems, too, for me.

The bottom line with all of this, of course, is that we don't know and the government doesn't know. The government doesn't know, because in fact it hasn't done the work. It hasn't done the consultation.

If the minister, the Premier, the Minister for Core Review, the minister for LNG, the rest of this cabinet and this government is so confident about Bill 24…. If the rest of the cabinet, this cabinet and this B.C. Liberal government is so confident that this is the right thing to do, that this is the right thing for public policy, that it's the right thing for farming and agriculture, that it's the right thing for food security, then you should be enthusiastic about going out and engaging in a meaningful consultation and discussion with the people who deliver this industry day in and day out — and with the local communities that will be the most directly impacted or affected by decisions that are made around changes in the ALR.

There should be a discussion. There should be opportunities at the upcoming UBCM to have a discussion about the substance of this bill before it's passed, not after it's passed. There should be an opportunity to go into those six regions that are being identified in this bill for panels and have discussions in those regions and have discussions about the potential impact of regional panels. Are they a good idea, or are they a bad idea? That's not going to happen. Those panels are going to get put in place.

There should be a discussion with academics, with soil scientists, with agrologists, with those people who understand this very, very well about what the potential impacts of these decisions are on production of food and what the projections are, moving forward, as to what our needs will be and what our opportunities are in the different parts of the province. How do we ensure that we're able to exercise those options and opportunities?

None of that is going to happen. All of it is going to come post Bill 24. The bill will be passed. The regulations will be written. The appointments will be made. The people will be in place. The action will be going forward, and then there will be a public relations exercise — maybe, maybe not — to talk to people about something after it's done.

This is this old story of closing the barn door after the horse is gone. This is truly what we're talking about here, and it doesn't make sense. It just doesn't make sense. If the government truly believes this is in the best interests of British Columbians, if they truly believe they have an argument to make that British Columbians will embrace across this province, to say that this is the right way to go, then they should engage British Columbians in the discussion about that.

There are folks out there who might be in agreement with some of this, but what you hear from them is: "I have lots of questions, and I have no answers." Doesn't the minister, doesn't the Premier, doesn't the government feel some obligation to hear those questions, to respond to them, to answer them? If the government doesn't have the answers — to take it upon itself to go and find answers that are substantive and credible and put those answers forward. Isn't the government prepared to do that? That's really what has to happen here.

I would say this is a bad piece of legislation that shouldn't go forward. I would say that it doesn't make sense in terms of food security. I would say it doesn't make sense in terms of climate. I would say it doesn't make sense in terms of the agricultural industry.

I should be obliged to go and hear from people who might disagree with me, and that should be part of that process — me, or members on this side who share that view, who could sit on that legislative committee, along with the members on the government side, of course, and go out and hear that debate and engage thoughtful, informed members of the public in that discussion and that debate.

Then come back, as committees often do, and sit down and do the work to prepare some thoughtful recommendations, amendments, suggestions, whatever, for the minister and for government, and be prepared to submit that in the fall to this Legislature, to tell this Legislature what they heard, to tell this Legislature what they assessed or deemed from what they heard, to say what science out there, what questions haven't been answered that need answering.

We may well find that. Legislative committees can do some work, but they're not research centres. We may well find….I suspect there's a good possibility that what we would find is some very real questions about thoughtfulness and about the need to look forward, the need to do more assessment and more analysis and the need to look at the bigger picture moving forward.

If that advice comes from sources that bring credibility and legitimacy to those questions, why wouldn't the government, why wouldn't the Ministry of Agriculture, say: "That makes sense, and we're going to do that, because we want to get this right"? That's important.

Part of the challenge we have — and part of this is the track record of the government — is far too often taking decisions that haven't been thoughtfully considered and then having to back-pedal out of them later on. It would be very unfortunate to pass Bill 24, which I think is one of those times when not a lot of thought has gone into this. There's a bit of a myopic view moving forward about where all the cards lay in this game now for the government, and that anything that has to be done to facilitate that should be done.

What we need to do is get a little bit past that. This is too important. When we talk about food, when we talk about food security, when we talk about an industry that still is critical to this province and critical to the country, we should be more thoughtful. We should be more careful about how we make those decisions.

The amendment that's here that we're debating today would give us, give this Legislature, the opportunity to do that.

It doesn't say to the government: "You have to change this bill today." What it says to the government is: "You have to go listen to British Columbians. You have to create the vehicle, through this Legislature, to go talk to British Columbians. You have to give people a fair hearing. You have to be prepared to engage and defend your position if you truly believe this is good for British Columbia, good for the agricultural industry, good for the farmers in this province, good for local governments, good for communities, good for people who are concerned about environmental questions that are also impacted by decisions here."

There has to be some obligation from somebody at that cabinet table to go out and talk to people. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be the case. Unfortunately, it appears that these decisions were taken…. As is often the wont with governments — it certainly is the wont with this government — decisions are taken that the government knows cannot be supported by any kind of thoughtful debate. They sit on a base of sand. They will move. They will shift. They are but another agenda. Rather than go and defend them, you just railroad them through.

We as the opposition have spent time, and will continue until the end of this session to spend time, to give people out in the community more opportunity to put pressure on this government. But sadly, this is a government that, when it knows it's wrong but has an agenda anyway, will ram that agenda through. That's probably what we're dealing with today.

I do wish the government would do the right thing, would engage British Columbians in the discussion about this 40-year-old jewel, in terms of legislative and programmic policy in this province, but that's probably not going to happen. Instead, we will get closure forced upon us on Thursday. We will move forward from there.

I would assure the members on the other side this debate will not end on Thursday. The people in this community concerned about agriculture will not stop their voices. This side will not stop raising its voice. We will be talking about this for an awfully long time to come and holding the government accountable for ramming this through without talking to British Columbians, for ramming it through and ignoring all of the evidence and all of the experts who say this government is just terribly, terribly wrong in this decision.

It's a failed piece of legislation that will hurt this province for decades and generations to come, but I don't think the government or the minister really cares that much about that.

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