A Canadian Agricultural Policy That Works: The Conversation Starts Now

Conversation StartsI was told today that this past year was the best year in 50 years for farmers in southwestern Ontario. I don’t know if that is right or not but it was told to me by a longtime farmer in the business.  He followed those remarks by saying it was the only good year in the last 50 years and collectively as farmers we have to do better.  We had a good visit.  Everybody in farm country has an opinion.

That conversation followed an earlier one in the day regarding the politics of Canada.  At one point in my life, in fact for most of my time writing this column it focused squarely on Canadian agricultural policy.  That largely depends on how friendly Canadian politics is to agriculture.  So when I ran into a former MP this morning I asked him about opposition leader Michael Ignatieff.  Many Canadians call Mr. Ignatieff “Iggy”.  The former MP related to me that he called him “Iffy”.  Needless to say, his opinion was not the highest. “Iffy” says it all.

Both of these conversations got me thinking about the current state of agricultural policy in Canada.  There is such a myriad of opinion on the players within the Canadian agricultural policy space it is becoming increasingly difficult to get anything done.  When you add the potpourri of Canadian agricultural farm groups adding to the discussion our agricultural policy world moves at glacial speed.  With our politicians calling each other names in Ottawa, it’s a wonder that anything gets done.

Of course we do not have the franchise in a political world, which makes a mishmash of agricultural policy.  For instance over the past few weeks I have been wondering about the extension of the ethanol blenders credit and import tariff in the United States.  It was my understanding that these policies were set to disappear at the end of this month.  However, with Mr. Obama in trouble and with the complexity of the American political system on full display, it looks like both those measures have been extended for another year.  A couple months ago I did not expect that.  I still don’t understand the American political system.  Needless to say, our American friends are very successful having an aggressive agricultural policy despite it all.

In Canada it has become in vogue to say that our political system doesn’t work or is not working very well.  I tend to agree with that because it seems Canada among the British Commonwealth countries that follow the Westminster Parliament changes the least.  Even in the UK, they have a coalition government after what many perceived to be an incomprehensible minority result after the last election.  In Canada, because of the reality of the Bloc taking 50 seats in every federal election, minority parliaments are the norm.  So our federal government goes on like nothing happens while the ruling party worries about a common sense opposition coalition developing.  Meanwhile, our British cousins who invented the system don’t even hesitate to re-invent it again when they have a minority situation.

It does lead to some pretty difficult politics in Ottawa, one where MPs are whipped into shape on almost every vote.  When you combine that with the different regional agricultural needs across this country forging change in our agricultural policy is almost impossible.  Despite that, federal agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz releases to people like me his good news almost every day.

Where at one time I commented consistently on the federal ministers of agriculture, now I rarely do.  I don’t see much difference between Liberals and Conservatives and even the NDP.  The Bloc on the other hand, at least believes in something, like keeping the dream of an independent Quebec alive.  In 2010, that’s just flat out bizarre.  Let’s just leave it at that.

Having said this, I would be remiss in pointing out, despite it all, how powerful the farm lobby in Canada remains.  Sure we have a mishmash of different things, but at the end of the day certain groups within Canadian agriculture are very powerful.  Of course those groups are our supply-managed sector of commodities, which dominate the bigger agricultural policy agenda.  Their power especially in Ontario and Quebec has no peer.  Everybody else outside the sectors tries to fight off the cheap food policy.

There is an inherent unfairness in that.  On one side we have the supply made sector, very powerful, very stable and very well funded.  On the other side we have grains and oilseeds, horticulture and our livestock industries.  They are inherently unstable, not very well funded and constantly looking for some type of policy equity with their supply managed cousins.  At a certain point there has to be a conversation about that in this country.  Why for one and not for all?  That conversation might as well start now.

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