Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


May 12, 2014

Remarks on Bill 24, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act

S. Simpson: I'm pleased to have the opportunity to stand and speak to Bill 24, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, 2014. This piece of legislation that has been introduced does a number of things, but it really, primarily, has two particularly key critical and fundamentally flawed aspects.

The first is to break the agricultural land reserve, essentially, into two zones in the province, the first zone being zone 1: Vancouver Island, the south coast and the Okanagan, where the commission largely, in that zone, continues to prioritize the preservation of agricultural land in its decision-making.

It creates zone 2, and what zone 2 does…. That contains about 90 percent of the land that's under ALR coverage today, and there the commission will be compelled to give equal weight to economic, cultural and social values, regional planning objectives, and any other prescribed considerations.

What you have here is you say that for that zone 2 — 90 percent of the land in the ALR — it's wide open now. It's wide open now. What you have here is a situation that does that.

The other thing that this bill does is it changes the decision-making structure of the commission. The commission, and we'll talk a little about this in a while…. The Liberal government, back a number of years ago, took what was a provincial commission and attempted to break it up into regional panels — didn't make that compulsory. That system did not work effectively, and the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission essentially drew it all back into a single commission and a single decision-making body.

What this does now is say that that changes. It says that we will go to regional panels, and these panels will be, essentially, Liberal political appointees in six regional panels. They will become the decision-makers throughout this province. This is fundamentally flawed. It's a system that undermines the Agricultural Land Commission and the agricultural land reserve in the most fundamental of ways.

What you have is a situation where we now have these two different zones. Why is this important? Why is it important, this question? Why has this piece of legislation caused such concern across the province — concern with the agricultural community, concern with the farming community, concern with local government? How come that's been the case? How come this piece of legislation, maybe more so than anything we've dealt with in this particular session, has raised the fears and concerns of British Columbians and of people in our communities across the province?

Well, to understand that, you have to go back to the decision that was made back when the Agricultural Land Commission Act in 1973 was adopted. That was adopted at the time by the Dave Barrett government. It was adopted at a time, in fact, when decisions were made that we needed to protect the integrity of our farmland, the integrity of our agricultural properties. The agricultural industry had to be protected, and food security was a compelling and growing concern. That's what made it so important at that time. As a result of that, more than 40 years of this.

For all of the back-and-forth — and we've seen lots of laws come and go in this province over 40 years — this particular piece of legislation, the agricultural land reserve, the land commission that facilitates that reserve…. The integrity of that has, in large part, been sustained for 40 years. It's been sustained because it is one of the most enduring pieces of legislation and law in the history of the province.

It is one of the laws that makes British Columbia the great place it is. It's a law that has fundamentally sustained this province, and when we talk about sustainability and climate and environment, food security becomes a compelling issue.

Increasingly, as a province that relies on California for food, relies on other places, we know that that reliance can't necessarily be sustained. We know about the situation in California, with increasing droughts. We know about problems elsewhere caused by climate, caused by other issues.

We know it becomes even more important that we protect the integrity of food security in this province. And you cannot protect the integrity of food security in this province if you do not protect the agricultural land and if you do not support the farming communities and industries in this province.

Bill 24 does not do that. Bill 24 takes us in the other direction. That's the reality of what we face with Bill 24.

As we look at this, we have to look at how this bill came about. We know that this piece of fundamental legislation was brought in with almost no consultation with stakeholders, with people in the community — almost no consultation at all. That's why the member for Delta South, who spoke before me, quite wisely said that even if you don't want to kill this bill, which is what we should do, there is no sense in bringing this forward now.

There should at least be some desire to have a discussion with British Columbians before you even contemplate a piece of legislation like this. I suspect the problem the government has is that they know if they open that box and start to travel this province and start to talk with British Columbians, people in local communities, people who work in the industry, they will hear time after time that Bill 24 is bad legislation.

It's a bad law, and it belongs in the scrap heap. That's what they'll hear. They don't want to do that because they know what the result of that will be.

What do we know about the people who have talked about this piece of legislation? We know that the B.C. Agriculture Council…. Interestingly, when the bill first was introduced, the chair at that moment embraced the bill. As was said by people on the Agriculture Council, they embraced it until they read the bill. Then, after they read it, they rejected it.

The chair said: "I think we're genuinely afraid that the changes will trump the well-being of agriculture and agricultural land." That's what we heard from the Agriculture Council. They are concerned. They are not supportive. They do not feel they were consulted.

The minister did talk to them. The minister had a day-long meeting or something close to that with them — the new Minister of Agriculture. We'll talk a little bit about that consultation process in a minute. But that's what we heard from those folks.

We also know that you can travel across this province and look at regional governments and local governments. Local governments across this province and regional associations of local governments across this province have been adopting resolutions and taking positions that say: "Stop. Stop Bill 24. Stop what you're doing. At least talk to us if you're not prepared to just throw the bill away, which is what you should do."

But they're not being spoken to. They're not having their issues addressed, and that's a significant concern. We have them saying this, and of course, they're not alone in this at all. We have soil scientists across the province who have raised their concerns.

Dr. Art Bomke, the professor emeritus in the UBC faculty of land and food systems — pretty smart guy — understands this issue. What did the professor say?

"With Bill 24, we will not only lose ground in the literal sense but also in the public policy sense. The ALR was established because local and regional authorities could not be relied upon to protect our scarce and irreplaceable farmland from non-farm development. The six-panel system contained within Bill 24 potentially takes us right back to the 1973 situation that gave rise to the establishment of the provincial ALR and the provincial land commission in the first place."

There is concern across this province about this piece of legislation. There is concern about where this legislation takes us and about what it does and doesn't achieve.

It receives little support from people in the community who work in this field. As I said, the B.C. Agriculture Council has raised concerns. We've heard from soil scientists. Members here will know, because some of them, I'm sure, have seen the letter that was sent to the Premier that's critical of Bill 24, a letter signed by 100 academics — biologists, naturalists and other academics.

What does that letter say about Bill 24? It says: "The bill reduces the ability for science to inform land use decisions, will increase pressure to remove land from the reserve at a cost to the general good. Agricultural lands produce not just crops but contain wetlands, streams, ponds, riparian areas, woodlands, hedgerows and uncultivated grasslands that are either adjacent to or integral to farm operations."

We know that, and what the letter tells us is these areas are instrumental in protecting functioning, healthy ecosystems, and in many cases these diverse services help boost agricultural production.

The letter from the 100 academics goes on to say: "Allowing more non-agricultural uses on ALR land and the release of more lands from reserves will have the unintended consequence of threatening many important ecosystems and, by extension, many valuable species, including species at risk." So the litany of concerns just continues to grow. That's the reality of what Bill 24 brings us. That's the reality of this piece of legislation.

We continue, also, to see other comments in relation to this. The British Columbia Cattlemen's Association in a letter to the Minister of Agriculture on May 7 says: "We fear that these changes will make ranching more vulnerable to other industries and non-farming activities that aren't complementary or reversible to agriculture."

The letter from the president of the cattlemen's association goes on to say: "It is difficult to see what the overall benefits to agriculture will be from Bill 24 and the amendments you introduced this week. Without more information about what the benefits to agriculture will be or what the changes will mean to our industry, it is very difficult for our directors to support the bill even with your changes."

They haven't asked…. The cattlemen's association says: "We kindly request that the minister delay any decision on Bill 24 until further information is provided and consultation can be had with the farming and ranching community."

They are asking to talk about the bill. They're not getting that opportunity. They're not getting that opportunity at all. What do we see instead? Well, we can go back. Some will recall that the minister, as he was meeting with the Agriculture Council…. When the minister was first appointed, he stepped out immediately after his appointment and told us all what we thought we wanted to hear.

What did the Minister of Agriculture tell us? He said: "The opportunity is everything from amending the bill to leaving it alone to removing the bill. I haven't landed on any particular recommendation yet because I'm not finished my consultation process." That's what the minister said.

So we all said: "Good. Maybe the minister is going to go out and talk to folks. Maybe he's going to put some kind of meaningful process in place. Maybe there's going to be a conversation with people who are concerned about agriculture, who are concerned about this land, who are concerned about these issues." We all were pretty hopeful.

Of course, the day the minister says that, it's not a day later the Minister for Core Review comes out and kind of slaps his colleague down and says: "Am I open to changes to the legislation? That's really up to cabinet and caucus, but I can tell you that government is not interested in fundamentally changing or delaying the bill. The bill will pass." That's what the Minister for Core Review says the next day.

So then we all wonder: who's the Minister for Agriculture, really? Is it the minister who carries the title, or is it the Minister for Core Review? Well, we immediately hear the next day when we come into this House and ask questions, that all of a sudden that extensive consultation that we were all offered, that consultation that was going to be broad and inclusive…. It was going to leave all of the options on the table so that people could comfortably feel that their input would be meaningful. They would have the opportunity for the input, and it would be meaningful.

Well, that ended up being the Minister of Agriculture then essentially saying: "I'm reading my e-mail, and other than that, we're not going to really change much. But I am reading my e-mail." That's essentially what the Minister of Agriculture said. It creates a huge, huge challenge here for what we have heard.

Now, it's not just those folks who are engaged in this. We also know that the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, Mr. Bullock, raised his own concerns: "I'm not sure if any of our people should be treated different in one part of the province than they are in another. I thought equal treatment is how we operated as a society, but we'll see." That's what the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission had to say.

It's interesting, because the chair has done some pretty interesting work on this. I'd like to talk about that, because I think the chair is pretty thoughtful.

Back in November of 2010, the chair, Mr. Bullock, submitted a report to the minister at the time, Review of the Agricultural Land Commission: Moving Forward — A Strategic Vision of the Agricultural Land Commission for Future Generations.

Now, it's interesting. That report is produced in November, 2010. The Liberal government sits on the report for a year before they allow it to be released. Why is that? Probably because a lot of the machinations that we're seeing now were coming up. But what did the report recommend? What did the chair of the land commission recommend?

He recommended that the land commission "have sufficient funding and resources to enable it to undertake targeted reviews of ALR boundaries to ensure that the ALR is more accurate and includes land that is both capable and suitable for agricultural use" — that the land commission have that authority and the resources to do the work. Not that it just be a blind situation, but that there be the resources available to do real research, real analysis, produce real evidence, based on some kind of empirical basis that would allow that question to be answered.

"That the work of the land commission be repositioned away from being reactive and focused on applications to a more proactive planning model that would enable it to strengthen ties to local government land use planning, deal with emerging issues as they relate to agriculture…." Not a bad idea. Not a bad idea for the land commission to be able to engage that discussion.

"That the 'encouraging farming' aspect of the land commission's mandate take a greater prominence so the land commission can focus its work on farmers, ranchers and the business of farming." That makes sense. Why aren't we strengthening the land commission and saying: "Go out and help farmers and ranchers to do their work, encourage them, make that industry more dynamic and more effective, and don't try to undermine it." But instead, Bill 24 clearly undermines it.

"That the land commission have sufficient funding and resources for compliance enforcement and that its compliance and enforcement capabilities be enhanced through legislative amendments." That would be helpful, especially after these debacles that we hear in the Peace — people just ignoring rulings and deciding they'll do what they want to do. The land commission needs to have the teeth and the authority to deal with these matters. But that is not what we're seeing here.

There are a number of other recommendations that were put out by Mr. Bullock in the November 2010 report — not all recommendations that we would necessarily agree with, but it was an important discussion and an important dialogue. It was one that would be meaningful.

It was one that in fact could be engaged as part of a debate with the public and the people of British Columbia around how we protect and enhance agricultural land in British Columbia, how we enhance food security, how we move forward in a way that makes sense.

Now, it isn't just the folks who understand agriculture who necessarily have done this work — no. In 2010 the Auditor General also did a report. At that point he called on the B.C. Liberal government to strengthen the Agricultural Land Commission. The report noted: "The commission is challenged to effectively preserve agricultural land and encourage farming in British Columbia." It showed a disturbing pattern of prime agricultural land being excluded from the reserve in the south of the province and being replaced with less fertile land in the north. That's what it found.

The Auditor General pointed to the cutting of the budget by over 28 percent since 2002. If there was any meaningful commitment to the Agricultural Land Commission, to agricultural land, you wouldn't have seen that kind of cut.

I quote the report from the Auditor General again. "In 2002-2003, the Agricultural Land Commission's budget was $2.9 million. Since that time, the budget has decreased. The commission's most recent detailed budget submission in November 2008," at that time, "estimated that with the 2008-09 budget of $2.4 million, it was operating at approximately 20 percent," or half a million dollars, "below its minimal requirements to maintain its core business." In 2008, that's what it saw.

What we saw is a pretty tried-and-true trick used by this government, which is to just basically strangle programs they don't want. Where you don't have the courage to just eliminate them, you cut the money out. You take out the resources. You strangle the program in a way that's necessary to be able to do that. That's what we saw. That's the situation that we have.

Now we have a situation here where pretty much everybody we're talking to…. The Agriculture Council, local and regional governments, the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, citizens and individual farmers across the province, the soil scientists, the academics, the Auditor General — group after group is raising concerns about this situation, raising concerns about how in fact this bill will affect agricultural land and the Land Commission in this province. That's the problem that we see today. That's the challenge that we see today.

You have to ask yourself: why is this happening? The reality that you have to conclude from this is that the government is feeling pressure from their friends, from their supporters, from certain aspects of industry to open the door to allow land to be removed so that other activities can go on. Other activities might be quite legitimate, but are they legitimate on agricultural land in the reserve? No, they're not. But that doesn't seem to matter. It seems to be a case where the decision has been made that in fact it's going to get bled out. That's what we're seeing happen today.

The history of the Land Commission is far too important. The history of the agricultural land reserve is far too important. There are fundamental strategies that you find in a province, in a place like this. These become increasingly important, particularly when we look at the future that is in front of us.

We know that climate change is real. We know that sustainability questions are no longer theoretical; they are issues we need to address today. We need to put in place sustainability initiatives today. We know that questions like food security are not academic questions. They are real questions for people every day. The quality, the quantity, the price of food — all fundamental questions. They are all questions that we need to get our heads around. It makes no sense.

It just makes no sense at all. At a time when we are trying to grapple with those questions — very fundamental questions from the industry level and from all levels of government — as to how we ensure that we address those questions of farming, of agriculture, of food security, we're introducing and dealing with things like Bill 24, which undermines and compromises that situation. That's the situation that we find ourselves in today.

The time truly has come. We are continuing and will continue this debate for a number more days as we head into the last dying days of this session over the next couple of weeks.

But what I would say to the people who would be watching this, who would be interested in Bill 24, who are interested in the integrity of the land reserve, interested in the integrity of the land commission, interested in enhancing and protecting food security, interested in protecting those communities that were built on farming and agriculture and ranching, is: we will continue to raise our voices here, but it is critical that those folks contact their MLAs, particularly their Liberal MLAs, and demand consultation.

Demand a real conversation about this. Demand those MLAs be accountable for this government's action on Bill 24. Demand that the minister fulfil the promise that he made for real consultation. Demand that the minister actually put back on the table what he said was on the table — everything. From withdrawing the bill to changing the bill, put it all back on the table.

That's what we want to see. Be very clear. If you're not going to throw the bill in the scrap heap, at a minimum…. We're apparently coming back in the fall, so take the bill on the road. Go out and talk to people in communities. Have a discussion with British Columbians. Consult with British Columbians. Spend a few months. Learn what you will learn. Bring the bill back here in October and see if maybe you, the Liberal caucus, have decided that you might like to change a few things in that bill after you go talk to your constituents, after you go talk to the stakeholders in this industry, after you go talk to local governments, after you go talk to regional districts. See what you think then. That's what I would say to the Liberal caucus.

We need to have a conversation. You can say we have a situation…. The accusation's been made that we're just trying to protect a piece of legislation from the NDP government of the '70s. If you believe that, if you believe that's all this is about, then go out and talk to British Columbians.

Most British Columbians probably couldn't tell you what the history of the land commission is, but they can tell you that it works. They probably couldn't tell you about how the land reserve got put in place, but they know it's a good idea. They inherently know that the decision to protect agricultural land, to protect farming, to protect those communities — they know that's important.

They would also tell you what Mr. Bullock said in his report from 2010: support those industries. Figure out how to invest in encouraging farming and agriculture; how you encourage more people, young people, to look at it as a legitimate option as a way to take care of their families.

That's what we need now. We need an innovative strategy that talks about the future of farming and the future of agriculture, not a strategy that talks about how you tear the pieces away, about how you get a little land out here and get a little land out there. There's no upside in this; there is no upside at all.

As we move forward on this bill…. Sadly, I believe we are going to move forward, because it's pretty clear to me that the commitments that the Minister of Agriculture made when he first got his new portfolio lasted about a day. That's pretty good by Liberal standards. They lasted a day before they changed their position. Not bad. But they're now compromised.

We've seen times when this Liberal government has been forced to reverse itself on positions. When that happens is when the public and stakeholders get to Liberal MLAs, get to the back benchand to those caucus members, and they come back to the Premier and the cabinet and the minister and say: "Wait a minute. This has got to stop. We're being told loud and clear that it's time to stop. It's time to send Bill 24 off to its final resting place. It's time to have a real conversation about agriculture. It's time to try to fix this industry. It's time to make this industry grow. Then we will be better off."

Sadly, that's not happening today, but I believe that if the public steps up and raises their voices, that potential is there.

We will stand up and raise our voices on this side. The public will raise their voices. Maybe, just maybe, this time the Liberal government will hear. They will understand they've gone too far. They will back off. They will remove this bill, and we will all be the better for it. I'm truly hopeful that that's what will occur. I'm hoping the people of British Columbia will change the government's mind by speaking out and saying: "Stop Bill 24." It's bad for British Columbia. It's bad for our families. It's bad for our communities. It's time for it to go. We'll all be better off.

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