by BARRY WILSON
With rumors swirling that Canada has offered significant concessions on supply management protections as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation, Opposition politicians are working rural Ontario and Quebec ridings in the 2015 federal election campaign warning of an impending ‘sell-out’ of farmer interests.
“We’ve asked Mr. Harper (prime minister Stephen Harper) to support supply management in its entirety,” New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair said in a summer interview. “He has refused. We would do it. Agreeing to concessions is a weak bargaining position.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his candidates have been making the same arguments to rural voters, noting as he did at a rural Ontario fair this summer that “supply management has worked for years.”
Twice in the past decade, Parliament has voted unanimously against any trade concessions that would underline the supply management system.
In TPP talks that could end as early as late summer or early autumn, the United States, Australia and New Zealand are insisting that Canada weaken supply management import controls, particularly for dairy.
In response, Dairy Farmers of Canada has been waging an expensive lobby and advertising campaign in defense of the system.
Yet the federal Conservative cabinet minister who would have to sell any TPP deal to dairy, poultry and egg producers seems anything but worried at the prospect.
“I don’t think it will be that difficult a sale,” agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said in an August interview. “When you talk to a lot of the SM guys, they understand the nature of what is required to keep the Canadian agriculture economy because they’re a major part of it. They also don’t want to be seen as the hurdle other people have to go around or over. They want to be part of the solution.”
Ritz doesn’t back away from the idea that some changes are coming if a TPP deal is struck but he insists the fundamental pillars of supply management – predictable tariff protection, price setting and production controls – will not be compromised. He noted that Canada agreed to increased cheese imports in the trade deal with the European Union without jeopardizing the system.
“We assure these farmers at every turn, we assure processors at every turn that under this government, the three pillars will remain strong regardless of the trade we undertake.”
He said the government realizes the value of the supply management system in the Canadian economy.
“Having said that, supply managed guys recognize that we’re a trading nation and we have to be able to maintain our trade corridors as well as build others,” he said. “We’re part of a global supply chain.”
Ritz said whatever the outcome of TPP negotiations, “this government understands the value of supply management, the stability it brings to a good chunk of rural Canada, the economic driver it is and will continue to be.”
It is a promise of change but continued protection that he will be called upon to explain and defend throughout the 11-week election campaign before the Oct. 19 vote. BP