When farm leaders meet provincial politics

Does it always pay to put your “X” beside the farmer’s name on the ballot?

It isn’t a unique story. In the late fall of 2010, Manitoba farmer Ian Wishart called a press conference to announce that he was heading into provincial politics, and that he had decided to seek the Progressive Conservative nomination for his Portage la Prairie constituency.

Until then, Wishart had been the well-regarded president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), the province’s general farm organization, so when he announced he was throwing his hat in with the right-of-centre Conservatives, more than a few political observers were surprised.

After all, during his tenure with KAP, Wishart had seemed to spend most of his time and energy on the environment, not on business issues, and the Alternative Land Use Stewardship (ALUS) program was largely his brainchild. While many conservatives such as former prime minister Brian Mulroney have strong environmental track records, it’s often seen as an issue that’s more important to the lefties.

Wishart had even worked very closely with the NDP government of Gary Doer on the water stewardship file, steering the government away from a perceived anti-agriculture bias as they addressed nutrient loading into Lake Winnipeg.

In short, if you didn’t know him, you could be forgiven for predicting that if Wishart ever went stumping for votes, he wouldn’t be wearing Tory blue.

But that’s just what he did. Earlier this spring Wishart spoke at length with Country Guide in his office at the Manitoba legislative building, where he continues to serve as an MLA, most recently as critic for family services.

Wishart says it’s by design, not accident, that he and other members of the KAP executive were seen as apolitical during their time on the executive.

“I had actually been the president of my local PC constituency association years ago,” Wishart said. “It was very much a conscious decision to meet with, and work with, all parties. In our view it was the only way we could be a credible lobbying organization.”

It’s the nature of the work, Wishart said. As a farm leader, the job isn’t to chase your own political aspirations, nor the agenda of the party you may be personally predisposed toward. Instead, it’s to advocate on behalf of your industry and the interests of all its members.

Sometimes that middle ground isn’t so easy to find. “We spent a lot of time at KAP looking for consensus,” Wishart said. “It wasn’t easy, and sometimes it just wasn’t possible — we lost the cattle producers, for example.”

He was referring to the 2008 decision by the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, which at the time said KAP and the cattle industry were too often finding themselves at odds, usually over positions on things like biofuels and corn tariffs that served to increase cattle producers’ cost of production.

But at times, it was even tough to keep grain groups under the one umbrella, especially with the controversy surrounding the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).

When Wishart did decide it was time to move on and pursue other opportunities, he also decided that he wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t hurt the organization he had been so closely associated with. This took time and planning, and his first step was to leave KAP well ahead of the provincial election, which came roughly a year later.

“We talk about the need for politicians to have a cooling off period if they’re going to leave government and become a lobbyist,” Wishart said. “I think the same is true of lobbyists who want to become politicians — they need a transitional period too. I don’t think it would have been right for me to just turn around and say, ‘Now I’m a politician.’”

Within the organization, there were discussions about how to smooth the transition and ensure the government remained willing to take a meeting with KAP, after the group’s former president had announced he wanted to join the ranks of the opposition.

“We were actually quite lucky in how that worked out,” Wishart said. “As it happened one of our vice-presidents, Rob Brunel, was from St. Rose, and the agriculture minister at the time was Stan Struthers, who represents the Dauphin constituency, which also includes St. Rose. Rob, who’s a really competent and well-spoken guy, stepped up and became interim president, which I think really helped to keep that relationship going.”

In the end, that was the important thing, Wishart said. He and the other members of the executive needed to manage the transition carefully so they wouldn’t ruffle any feathers, and so they could protect the farm group’s long-standing public tradition of political impartiality.

Divide and conquer

The divisive nature of farm politics comes as no surprise to political scientist Grace Skogstad. A transplanted Albertan who grew up in an agricultural family, Skogstad now works at the University of Toronto where she has become a leading expert on the political discourse within agriculture and how it interfaces with the larger political issues.

Skogstad says a smooth, carefully planned transition like Wishart’s is more achievable at the provincial than the national level. The provincial groups have smaller tents to try to hold together, she points out, and while friction is always possible, it’s easier to avoid in smaller political units.

“The provincial groups have, by and large, done a pretty good job at remaining impartial,” Skogstad told Country Guide during a recent telephone discussion. “It’s at the federal level where it falls apart.”

At that federal level, the dynamic that emerges is of two competing sets of interests that can roughly be divided into whether the group’s core constituency is oriented towards domestic production, or toward exports. Politicians then go about busily playing these groups off against each other, or using them for their own purposes, Skogstad said. That can mean some groups become very closely tied with  certain parties, or that they’re driven into the arms of other parties because they’re rejected as being ideologically impure.

“The Canadian Wheat Board is a good example of this,” Skogstad said. “Were they a Liberal group, as they were often accused of being? Or was it that they found themselves continually attacked by the Conservatives and they found a friend in (Wascana Liberal MP) Ralph Goodale?”

A similar dynamic appears to be coalescing around supply management groups and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture which counts them as important members. This was highlighted at the time of the last federal election when the CFA’s high-profile president Bor Friesen, another Manitoba farmer, left to run for the Liberals.

Skogstad also pointed out the CWB and its supporters weren’t the only agricultural organizations to get sullied by this dynamic. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the grains groups became very closely allied first with the Reform party followed by the Conservative party, in no small part through an Alberta government strategy.

“The Alberta government supported, if not outright funded, some of the western grain groups because they wanted to put political pressure on the Wheat Board,” Skogstad said.

Make no mistake, political affiliation really can yield short-term benefits by opening doors and getting movement on important files when the political winds are blowing in the right direction.

But when the wind shifts, it can also quickly turn into a stumbling block.

After the last federal change in government, for example, it was an open secret that groups like the Canadian Federation of Agriculture were suddenly finding ministerial access to be a problem, while the newly formed Grain Growers of Canada seemed to find every door was open.

This is the real political danger of not playing nice, said Wishart.

“Governments change periodically,” he said. “It’s a very important part of our system of government. And if you’re seen as too closely aligned with one party or the other, that probably won’t work out too well for you.”

In fact, Wishart said nothing he’s seen during his time working as a member of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition has changed his thinking on this issue. He has encountered groups that do a very good job of working with everyone, and groups that are clearly also pushing a larger political agenda.

At times he’s even had fairly blunt discussions with some that have, in his view, crossed the line.

“I’ve sat down with them and told them, ‘I was a lobbyist’ and I’ve told them what group I represented,” Wishart said. “Then I’ve told them they should be meeting and open to working with everyone. Because if they’re not willing to, they need to understand that as the critic responsible for this portfolio, I am their advocate to my caucus. If they’re completely unwilling to work with me, it’s awfully hard for me to go back to my caucus and say ‘this is a good group and we should listen to them.’”

That doesn’t mean a good lobby group needs to pretend they believe something they don’t, or pander to any party’s agenda. It just means they need to be open to the discussion, and to the possibility there is more common ground between most of us than a lot of true believers might think.

“I find, quite frequently, that if we get right down to it, our goals are the same,” Wishart said. “Where we disagree is on tactics, on what the right way to address the problem is. That’s a very worthwhile discussion to have.”

Elect a farmer

It’s an old complaint that’s simply not supported by numbers. If you look at the numbers at all, farmers are actually over-represented in government.

It comes a surprise to many farmers across Canada, especially since it often feels like they’re up against the rest of the country, with a voice that gets drowned out by urbanites and non-farmers.

For the past 10 years, we’ve been electing 308 men and women to federal Parliament from constituencies from coast to coast to coast. At the same time, most popular estimates say that about two percent of the Canadian population are farmers (the exact number, according to the 2011 census, is 293,925 primary farm operators, or closer to one per cent of the population).

sidebar-statsIf farmers were represented at the two-per-cent rate, there would be six or seven sitting members of Parliament, or three or four, based on the census calculation.

Instead, there are 23 in the current 41st Parliament, according to a Parliament of Canada online database that tracks the previous occupations of our nation’s leaders.

That includes 19 Conservatives, three Liberals and a lone New Democrat — which translates to almost 7.5 per cent of the House of Commons having farm roots.

To parse the numbers a bit further, let’s look as some other professions and how they stack up. Take teachers — both primary and secondary teachers. There are about 445,000 of them across the country, based on the same 2011 census secondary results, which is just over 1.3 per cent of the Canadian population. If they were represented at that level, there would be four teachers sitting in the House of Commons. Instead there are 25, or about eight per cent of the members, a very similar rate of over-representation.

How about the popular stereotype of the lawyer turned politician? That one hits the nail on the head, according to the numbers. The total number of lawyers practising is harder to track, but the best available estimate was from a Macleans article on the nation’s overabundance of legal eagles in Canada, which pegged it at about 90,000, or about a quarter of one per cent of the national population. There are 43 of them sitting in the current Parliament, or just under 14 per cent of the total.

What this likely reveals is that Canadians have a short list of occupations we feel comfortable electing to represent us. They tend to be white collar professionals or business people with a track record of public involvement.

Farmers also make the cut.

Less represented are the blue collar trades, or the service industry, perhaps most famously highlighted after the NDP’s “orange crush” surge in Quebec during the last election when the party’s unexpected winners were at times  mocked for having non-traditional careers for parliamentarians, like bartender or interpretive guide.

This also seems to extend to other trades, for example electricians. There are about 86,000 licensed electricians in Canada, just marginally fewer than lawyers, again representing about a quarter of one per cent of the national population. Most people would probably agree it’s good honest work, and few can argue with the benefits of reliable electricity. However, there’s only one former electrician in the ranks of Parliament — the NDP’s Malcolm Allen, who also happens to be that party’s agriculture critic.

None of this really means that much of course. It’s just back-of-the-envelope figuring. Having members of a profession participating at the legislative level is no guarantee their issues are being addressed — just ask a farmer.

So the question farmers should be asking is: If they’ve got good representation, are their issues being addressed adequately? And if not, why not?

This article was originally published as “Farm vote” in the May/June 2015 issue of Country Guide

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