Premier Rachel Notley’s assurances farmers will be consulted later on farm safety legislation hold no water in rural Alberta, says Lacombe-Ponoka Wildrose MLA Ron Orr.
Notley stuck to her guns on Thursday and vowed to pass in this legislative sitting the basic components of Bill 6, which will introduce Workers Compensation Board coverage to paid farmers on Jan. 1 and those with paid employees must open an account by the end of April.
Occupational Health and Safety regulations and other components will only be introduced after extensive consultation with those on the province’s 43,000 farms and ranches, she said.
Notley shouldered the blame for the confusion related to the lack of details available at this stage.
“They were always intended to be introduced in regulations. But between what was explicitly stated and what was intended, fear and miscommunication has filled the gap, and I take complete responsibility for that.”
Amendments will be filed soon to fill that gap, she said.
Orr said many rural residents feel passing the bill gives the premier a “blank cheque” for the rest of the legislation.
“The farmers at this stage, because their are so many unknowns, because there’s been conflicting messaging coming from the government, really are not prepared to give her a blank cheque.
“They want to know what the details are before they sign off on it.”
He said one woman Bill 6 protester put it best, saying, “Before I eat a cake, I want to know what’s in it.”
Orr got up in the legislation to voice his opposition to the government’s handling of the legislation about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday during a lengthy debate that went until 1:30 a.m. the following morning.
Despite the premier’s determination to stay the course, Orr believes she was not prepared for the level of opposition from rural Alberta.
“I think she’s definitely going to have to come a bit to terms that farmers are really, truly concerned about this. They want to be consulted.”
The government needs to send the bill to committee and let farmers and ranchers have their say to come up with solid recommendations.
“I think that’s what farmers are asking for and I don’t think the premier has heard that message yet.”
Farmworkers Union of Alberta founder Eric Musekamp is critical of the way Wildrose has been playing to the crowds.
Opposition political haymaking is behind much of the growing furor over the government farm safety legislation, Musekamp believes.
“Fomenting discontent on the part of the Wildrose Party — that’s the primary factor,” said Musekamp, who has been working to extend Occupational Health and Safety legislation to farms for more than a decade through his Medicine Hat-based non-profit society.
Musekamp blames the Wildrose Party for spreading misinformation and rubbing sore spots left over by previous rural fights over landowner rights.
“It’s really unfortunate. The ag community is really shooting itself in the foot,” he said.
Musekamp said he’s heard from farmers both internationally, and from Canada’s other provinces — where Occupational Health and Safety regulations already apply — who are puzzled by the controversy.
“It’s really shining the light in the wrong way, I think.”
Musekamp said while many have complained about a lack of consultation a Crop Sector Working Group has been working with Alberta Agriculture for months on proposed OHS and WCB changes.
Musekamp believes bringing Alberta’s farms in line with safety standards in every province is necessary to stay competitive.
“This government is actually doing the industry a considerable favour by moving forward with this stuff even though there is this kind of head wind,” he said.
Maintaining existing farm exemptions from safety legislation “will preclude Alberta from marketing to the major buyers of ag products around the world because of our lack of standards.”
Orr rejects suggestions Wildrose is stoking rural opposition.
“The reality is it’s been the farmers pushing us, rather than us pushing them,” he said. “We have literally been swamped with letters and phone calls and emails.”
As far as losing out on international market opportunities, higher costs facing farmers because of carbon and other taxes and increased labour law costs are what will really hurt their competitive positions.