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Campaign season

With the federal election heating up, how nervous should Ontario’s dairy farmers and the West’s grain shippers start getting? By some accounts, quite nervous indeed

There was a time when farmers were front and centre in federal election campaigns. But no longer, it seems. With only about two per cent of the population involved in primary agriculture, it’s hard for this important industry to break through.

“The reality is, the days of elections being won or lost on agriculture issues are long past,” agrees Bryan Rogers, a self-confessed political junkie and former senior staffer for a number of MPs who serves now as executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada.

But does that mean agriculture will only be a bit player in this year’s vote? Not necessarily.

Rogers sees a short list of big ag issues in 2015, including transportation in the West, supply management in the East, and business risk management programs everywhere. And he isn’t alone.

Combined with our distinctly Canadian way of making huge, periodic changes in national ag policy, it also sets up the possibility that this year’s election may prove to be very big news indeed.

Our distinctly Canadian way? Murray Fulton, a noted agriculture economist and now a professor with the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, has been spending a lot of time thinking and writing about this very topic lately, including giving the 2014 Fellows Address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Agriculture Economics Society on how agriculture policy, economics and politics intermesh in Canada.

“What we get is really something that can only be described as ‘punctuated equilibrium,’” Fulton says. “We have periods that are largely consensus, where there might be refinements within that consensus, but nothing changes until over the course of time pressure builds, and there is a punctuation, when the given issue evolves very quickly.”

Fulton says the obvious recent example was the Canadian Wheat Board and the sales power that organization held from 1939 until August 1, 2012, when it lost its single-desk mandate. Beginning in the 1960s, subtle changes began to appear that fundamentally altered how that marketing agency functioned, including scrapping the delivery quota system, introducing protein level premiums, bringing in a farmer-elected board of directors and introducing producer payment options that mimicked important aspects of the open market.

“These were significant and substantial changes, but they were all done within the context of the CWB as a single-desk seller,” Fulton says. “It was only after pressure built up over several years that it culminated in a punctuation — the removal of the single-desk power.”

That only occurred after farmers who were bridling against what they saw as the restrictions of the system began to make it a political issue. They staged public protests, illegally exported grain to the U.S., and some even very publicly went to jail for short periods of time. In the face of this, the Chretien government introduced some of the more fundamental alterations that in retrospect led ultimately to the open-market system of today.

The message is, change happens when stakeholders who feel they are disadvantaged under the current system take their case to a larger audience, be it policy-makers or the general public.

A similar pattern evolved with the Crow Rate federal freight subsidy, and with intellectual property rights for plant breeders.

And now, in Eastern Canada, the 800-pound gorilla nobody likes to talk about is supply management. In many ways, Fulton says, the poulty and dairy sectors are a textbook case of this concept beginning to play out. Supply management dates from the 1970s, and since then has only evolved at the margins, through shifts in quota policies and import allowances.

But there may be some sign that supply management’s political clout is ebbing. For instance, the negotiated, but not yet ratified, Canada-Europe comprehensive trade agreement holds out the prospect of larger cheese imports.

At the same time, too, Fulton says pressure is arguably beginning to build outside of the sector for policy-makers to rethink the supply management system.

For example, he says there’s been a marked uptick in commentary in the media, especially the English-language press, that is beginning to question the overall value of supply management to the country. Consumers would benefit from lower prices, the pundits claim, and a trading nation like Canada would benefit from ending a trade irritant.

“There does seem to be an effort to change the public perception of supply management,” Fulton says.

However, Fulton also notes these efforts tend to take years, and a few columns of print here and there aren’t likely to make the issue a major one in the coming election — but two or three elections down the road, it’s anyone’s guess.

Fundamentally he says the important thing to realize is that, to borrow a controversial idea from former prime minister Kim Campbell, elections are really more about politicking than about any substantive discussion of the issues, and agriculture issues will only come up in the larger context of a national campaign if they can gain voters or keep already loyal voters inside the tent.

East and West

In that way, another pundit says there are clearly going to be regional agriculture issues that emerge during the campaign. Sylvain Charlebois of the University of Guelph has become a major public intellectual in recent years, speaking often on agriculture issues. This year he’s been based out of Innsbruck, Austria, where he’s spending his sabbatical year as a visiting scholar. He spoke recently by phone with Country Guide about the looming federal election, and he says he sees a handful of issues, mostly broken down along regional lines, as likely to dominate any ag politicking.

“I think they’ll certainly be talking about rail transportation out West, where there continues to be a problem,” Charlebois said. “In Ontario and Quebec, I think the big issue will be the future of supply management.”

In fact, Charlebois says if there’s an issue he sees with breakout potential this election cycle, it’s supply management, albeit only if those most affected by proposed changes under the European trade deal make it one.

“This agreement has been negotiated but not ratified, and it will be the next government, not this one, that does ratify it,” Charlebois said. “I think we really do have the stage being set for the first election since 1988 where trade and trade agreements and their effects become a major issue.”

Murray Fulton might disagree with some of the details of that analysis, but on the broad strokes he and Charlebois find themselves in agreement. However, he says other than the minor adjustments under the proposed trade deal, none of the parties have any interest whatsoever in stirring the hornet’s nest, especially since Ontario farmers are major players within the system, and increasingly it’s looking like Ontario is the key battleground province.

“The next federal election will be won or lost in Ontario,” Fulton says. “Supply management might not be a big vote winner, but it could be a big vote loser.”

Steeped in the culture of the national capital, the GGC’s Rogers agrees Ontario will be critical in this race, and he adds that this likely means little in the way of major proposals that could alter the fundamental nature of agriculture this campaign. Instead he expects the election will play out along predictable lines.

“It’s going to be all about leadership,” Rogers says. “You can see how all the parties are attempting to frame the other leaders in a negative light.”

The opposition parties will snipe at each other and paint the government as out of touch, Rogers predicts. Whether either find any traction is an open question, he says, but there is one reason it might be a more successful strategy.

“The government has been in power just about 10 years now, and it seems that this is about the shelf life of a government these days,” Rogers says.

One region that might struggle to force any real attention to its issues might, ironically, be the Conservative heartland of the Prairies, and the farmers in that region in particular. Simply put, it’s because they’ve often formed the bedrock of the government’s vote, and during the hurly-burly of an election campaign, it’s often the squeaky wheel rather than the reliable ally that gets the grease.

“I don’t want anyone to think I’m being overly critical or anti-Western Canada,” Charlebois says, “but the truth is, during elections you only pay attention to voters who have the potential to switch.”

One reality that agriculture is going to face is the growing public interest in agriculture and food. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a good thing for consumers to be aware that their food comes from somewhere other than the grocery store. On the other, this might mean they start developing opinions about the industry, and how you should run your business.

Again, Fulton sees evidence. Increasingly, food and environmental activists are extolling the virtues of local and organic food. Food policy is likewise creeping up on the agenda, especially through the lens of health and wellness.

In Fulton’s eyes, it’s an attempt to change the public discourse around food and agriculture, and it’s one that the larger agriculture industry can’t ignore.

“These efforts are meeting with some success, even without much direct political involvement or government involvement at the policy level,” Fulton says. “Organic food is a good example. They’ve been quite successful in establishing a market, and the government really didn’t do much other than set organic standards.”

It’s this reality that also may set the stage for farmers finding themselves in the election spotlight unexpectedly — and in a less-than-welcome way. Charlebois says somewhere, deep in an activist organization, someone could be preparing ammunition to release in the heat of an election campaign to force the issue to a head. Or there could be another major food safety issue that emerges at exactly the wrong time.

“We could see something like a Friends of the Earth or PETA releasing a damaging video around animal welfare during the campaign,” Charlebois says. “If that happens, it will become an election issue. Likewise, there could be another food safety issue like listeriosis that makes people sick or even kills someone. Given what we’ve already seen in the past few years, that would become a major campaign issue very, very quickly.”

That doesn’t mean it will happen, only that there’s a chance such an issue could emerge — and the middle of an election campaign is a tough time to get anyone to take a deep breath and a sober second look at anything.

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