Sometime between now and next fall, the federal election writ will be dropped and the 42nd Canadian federal election will be underway.
Country Guide recently spoke to federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and the critics from the other two major parties about how they see agricultural issues playing out in the campaign.
As you might expect, there was some common ground, some discord, and lots of politics.
In a portfolio noted for colourful characters, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz still manages to stand out.
Always bluntly spoken and ready to crack a joke, he has both charmed and incensed during his tenure, all while dealing with his share of the challenges of eight years at the top.
From mad cow disease to listeriosis and E. coli issues at processing plants, food safety has been at the top of the agenda. Trade negotiations have seen supply management under the microsope. And while Prairie grain growers have enjoyed decent prices for much of his run, in recent years they’ve struggled with an overburdened rail network.
Even so, Ritz was upbeat during a recent conversation with Country Guide about his time as minister and what the big issues are in the coming years.
“I really feel that during the past few years, agriculture has come of age,” Ritz says. “It’s become more global in focus, more outward looking, more confident.”
He doesn’t take credit for this himself, saying the new generation of farm managers, processors and other business people have stepped up to the challenges of feeding a hungry world, and his job has been to clear the road for them. But he also concedes it’s a work in progress, and challenges remain.
In the coming campaign, Ritz says he expects a lot of people to be asking him about the railway situation in the West, where a terrible winter last year brought systemic issues to the fore.
“I think it’s fair to say there are still challenges there,” Ritz says. “We need to make sure that the railways are addressing not just the letter, but also the spirit of what the government is asking of them.”
Critics charge the railways have been cherry-picking grain off main lines and other convenient locations, leaving more remote locales to languish.
One area Ritz says the government has made real headway is through its reform of business risk management programs. It has moved away from ad hoc payments towards a more insurance-based approach. It’s not been without controversy, but Ritz defends the direction the government has taken.
“These programs are now predictable and bankable, and farmers have clearly said they prefer this,” Ritz said. “Sure, there’s the odd person who wants to write the papers when the moon is full, complaining that the government won’t backstop them for every little thing in their business — but that’s just not the role of government.”
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Another bright spot has been trade and market access. Ritz says the Harper government has done much to advance that agenda, through finalized deals like the Korean free trade agreement and ongoing negotiations.
“We’ve pushed as hard as we can,” Ritz said. “Market access is very important to the grain and livestock sectors. We would certainly continue to pursue this.”
Supply management has long been the third rail of Canadian agriculture policy, a very popular system with the farmers who participate, and that many consumers either support or are blissfully unaware of. And while some pressure appears to be building for a rethink of these policies, none of the political parties are leading the charge, including the Conservatives, who are the obvious ideological champions for a revision of the policies. Ritz concedes the differences between the parties come down to the details, not the broad strokes.
“I think we all recognize the importance of supply management,” Ritz says. “That’s not to say any policy should be frozen in amber. It’s been in play for 40 years. You have to periodically revisit any policy, and evaluate how it’s working today, and how it could be refined to work better today.”
Over the next few months, Ritz will face the sitting politician’s greatest challenge — he’ll take his record to the electorate. While he hails from the Tory heartland of rural Saskatchewan, he says he’s not taking anything for granted, but he also concedes he wouldn’t mind getting the job again if it all lines up right.
“If the voters re-elect me, and the prime minister saw fit to give me the job again, then yes, I would like to be agriculture minister again,” Ritz says. “I think the government has accomplished a lot, especially around trade, and I would like to continue that work.”
NDP at the table
Malcolm Allen is the MP who has spearheaded the NDP’s agriculture efforts, serving as critic for the agriculture portfolio since the 2011 election. MP for the Ontario riding of Welland, he’s a transplanted Scot and an electrician by trade, and has been an MP since 2008. He insists that the NDP has spent a lot of time looking at agriculture policy in Canada, and arguably is the party best prepared to discuss the issues in the coming election.
“We’re the only federal party that’s taken the time to research, write and release an agriculture policy,” Allen says. “I strongly suspect we’ll be the only ones to do so before the next election.”
What Allen is referring to is the party’s Farm to Fork policy document, a national food strategy he says is sadly lacking in Canada, putting it behind other advanced nations. England, Australia and other OECD nations have one, and so should Canada, Allen says. He says we frequently get tied up in thinking about how Canadians on average spend just over 10 per cent of their income on food, and fail to recognize that even in wealthy nations like Canada, there are those who struggle to eat.
“For most of us it is a small percentage, though it has been growing for all of us recently,” Allen says. “For someone who’s working poor, say holding down a couple of jobs just to make ends meet, it can end up being much higher.”
Among other things Allen says the party hopes to increase access to high-quality food, and make farms more environmentally and economically sustainable.
Allen also says he expects to hear a number of practical issues dominate agricultural discussions during the campaign. One of the most important will be transportation problems in the West, he says, and he adds if the government is proud of its record in addressing them, it has no real reason to be.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away, I think this is going to be ongoing,” Allen said. “We had a service review two years ago, and it didn’t work. I don’t think the answer is another service review.”
Allen says there’s plenty of evidence beginning to accrue that the major railways are keeping their numbers up by creaming off the easy traffic on or near main lines, leaving many farmers continuing to wonder if their grain will move.
There’s also a growing issue surrounding what the farm of the future looks like, Allen said. He accepts the modern “family farm” isn’t the same as it was a couple of generations ago.
“I recognize that these farms can be very large, and some will be incorporated,” Allen said. “But I do think there’s some concern emerging, especially around farmland ownership, and large investments that have been made there in the past few years. I have talked to farmers recently in Manitoba and Saskatchewan who are very concerned that the price of land has got so high, and they’re less and less able to afford it.”
In Eastern Canada, Allen says he’s hearing plenty of concern about supply management. While he concedes the government largely mouths the right words, he questions the depth of their commitment, and wonders whether recent moves are the start of a slow-motion drive to undermine the boards.
“With supply management, my concern is that it’s death by 1,000 cuts,” Allen says. “Each time we get involved with a trade deal, we make concessions and tinker with it. At some point, if you give up enough, you look at it and wonder if it doesn’t make any sense.”
Allen is also sharply critical of government assurances that the new business risk management programs will in fact meet farmer needs. He notes the business is cyclical, and the programs were changed during good times and haven’t yet seen their first real test.
“The jury is still very much out,” Allen said. “The truth is we won’t know if they work until they’ve been tested, and I’m hearing a lot of concern that they’re not going to be adequate.”
Liberals pick their issues
Mark Eyking enters the coming federal election campaign in a unique situation. The Nova Scotia MP, former farmer and current agriculture portfolio critic, represents a third party that’s resurgent, but still a shadow of its former glory.
Now the party has a leader who doesn’t suffer from name recognition problems, and Eyking says he’s seen a sea change, especially in Western Canada.
“It’s gone from barely being able to get a handful of farmers out to a town hall meeting to getting 75 people out in the middle of the winter in the Prairies during a snowstorm, with terrible road conditions,” Eyking says. “Sure, there are some parts of the Prairies where it’ll be tough to make any inroads, but there are places like Manitoba where I think they’re definitely kicking the tires.”
Eyking is hoping this interest continues, and he says farmers across the country would be well represented by a Liberal government. He’s expecting a small handful of issues to dominate the agriculture agenda during the coming election.
Nationally he says business risk management is causing concern because it’s still not certain how well they’ll work when growers actually need them.
“It’s things like the trigger mechanism and how well it will work — there’s a lot of concern out there,” Eyking said. Additionally he says some good programs that the federal and provincial governments have cost shared have disappeared under the new system, especially those that funded innovation at the farm level.
He also says it’s clear the rail transportation situation in Western Canada remains a major issue for farmers in the region, and he says the situation underlines some unfinished business in the deregulation of grain marketing in the region after the Canadian Wheat Board lost the single-desk sales mandate.
“We’re not calling for the return of the wheat board, but the reality is that the CWB played an important role in that system, providing both co-ordination and oversight,” Eyking says. “I think the transportation situation plainly shows there’s still the need for a body of some sort to fulfil that need. The government’s solution hasn’t worked.”
Eyking also says cross-border issues like the U.S. country-of-origin labelling for meat and a dust-up over a program to bond fruit and vegetable shipments are hampering north-south trade and need to be addressed. He wonders if the government has been taking the issues seriously enough.
Eyking also says he’s concerned about the government’s commitment to supply management, noting it’s a real concern in rural Ontario and Quebec, meaning it’s likely to be an election issue in those ridings, especially since there appears to be a lot of pressure mounting around the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.
“I’m hearing that the U.S. is pushing supply management really hard in these negotiations,” Eyking said. “I’m worried because we’ve opened the door a bit with the European trade agreement.”
Eyking also wonders if value-added processing won’t be an issue in the coming election, since so much of it has shut down in southern Ontario.
“We’ve seen the loss of ketchup making in Leamington, when Heinz closed, for example,” Eyking said. “A lot of the products we used to produce, we just don’t make them anymore. It’s a real concern.”
This article first appeared as, “Electioneering” in the March 17, 2015, issue of Country Guide