by BARRY WILSON
Federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz is conceding nothing to critics predicting an imminent weakening of supply management protection but insists that if Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks include any Canadian concessions on supply management, farmers will be compensated.
“If there is loss on your farm, (or) the processing side, you will be compensated,” he said Sept. 30 during a debate on federal election campaign agriculture issues in Ottawa.
It is the same promise the Conservative government made when it agreed in principle to allow imports of an additional 17,000 tonnes of cheese in a trade agreement with the European Union more than a year ago.
But at least for now, Ritz does not concede that compromises are in the works despite widespread speculation and reports to the contrary.
“We’ll have to see what the final numbers are and what’s going to be required,” he told reporters after the two-hour debate organized by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. “Dairy farmers, poultry farmers, the feather industry can be assured this government has got their back. We always have. We always will.”
During the event that saw Ottawa police officers stationed outside and inside the elegant downtown Chateau Laurier Hotel in case protesting dairy farmers outside tried to break in, Ritz insisted the federal Conservative government will protect the three pillars of supply management in talks reported to be in their final stages this week as trade ministers meet in Atlanta.
The three pillars that add predictability to the sector are production quotas, price setting and tariffs to control imports.
Trade minister Ed Fast, an Abbotsford, British Columbia Conservative MP representing one of the largest chicken-producing ridings in the country, is at the table for Canada.
“There will be zero negative impact on supply management at the end of the day,” Ritz said after coming under attack from opposition MPs for putting supply management "on the table" in the 12-country trade negotiation that would help open up market opportunities throughout the growing Pacific region. During the debate, opposition critics were skeptical.
Liberal critic Mark Eyking, a Nova Scotia farmer running for re-election in his Cape Breton seat, complained that unlike previous Liberal governments who led trade negotiations, the Conservatives have kept Canadian farmers who could be affected by the deal in the dark. “They need more information.”
New Democratic Party critic Malcolm Allen, a former union negotiator before being elected in the southern Ontario Welland riding in 2008, argued that a strictly domestic policy like supply management should not be on the table in an international trade negotiation.
He told reporters later that by leaving the issue at play in the negotiation for several years, the Conservatives have signaled they are prepared to make concessions. He said they could have put it on the table at the start and then quickly said it is not negotiable.
“They are afraid to take on the tough negotiations and if you’re afraid, you’re done,” said Allen. “If you are going cap in hand, which I believe is the case in the TPP — signaling we need to get it, we can’t walk away — as someone who used to bargain for a living, I would love to have someone like that come to the table because I am going to take you to the cleaners because I know you need the deal.”
He held out the possibility that if Thomas Mulcair and the NDP win the Oct. 19 election, they could refuse to approve any deal the Conservatives sign during an election campaign. “We have said all along once the details are known, if it is a good deal for Canadians including the dairy sector, we’ll say yes and if it’s a bad deal we’ll say no.”
The debate featured sections on seven topics including farm labor, research, the environment, consumer acceptance of farming practices and safety nets. However, the debate over trade and the TPP drew the sharpest divisions.
The trade negotiation, involving countries as diverse as Japan, the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam and Canada, aims to create a freer trade zone that would cover more than 40 percent of the world’s economy.
Canada’s supply management protections have been a particular target of New Zealand, which wants to export more milk into the United States. The United States, in turn, wants to then ship some of its surplus milk north into Canada. BF