by JIM ALGIE
More than $300 million over five years for improved, rural access to high speed broadband communication, possible money for Canadian food inspections and expanded tax deferral for distressed sales of breeding livestock were among agriculture-related measures in Tuesday’s federal budget.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Mark Wales said late Tuesday he needs more time to sort details for most of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s announcements. But he welcomed the potential for new federal spending on high speed Internet, which is spotty in many regions of rural Ontario.
Some farmers still struggle with dial up. Others use more costly satellite services which vary with weather conditions.
“It’s pretty well a dog’s breakfast,” Wales said of current coverage. “And for people trying to do business in a modern world this is not good enough,” he said.
Wales expects to issue a detailed budget commentary, Friday.
In a quick review of highlights, Tuesday, he expressed reservations about Flaherty’s food inspection announcement because it may actually reflect existing policy.
“Governments at many levels are really good at announcing something, doing nothing for a year and then making the same announcement again,” Wales said.
Widely reviewed by Capital Hill commentators as a boring budget, Flaherty’s “Economic Action Plan 2014” emphasizes tax restraint and progress toward balancing the government books within the next fiscal year. Finance department projections show a budget surplus of $6.4 billion by fiscal 2015-16, in time for the next federal election.
The finance minister’s House of Commons address underlined a 2014 freeze on departmental, operating budgets and warned of continued fragility in the world economy. However, the 2014 budget also contains $153 million “to strengthen food safety programs” through the hiring of 200 additional “inspectors and other staff.”
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which published its alternative budget, Tuesday, said new Canadian Food Inspection Agency funding shows the government “does acknowledge that the cuts to the Food Inspection Agency were too draconian,” a reference to earlier departmental trimming at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Wales said it wasn’t entirely clear, Tuesday, that Flaherty was announcing 200 new positions or highlighting details of existing plans by government.
The finance minister’s remarks also emphasized new money for rural broadband. Budget documents published on the finance ministry’s website identify $305 million over five years “to extend and enhance access” to broadband networks in rural and northern Canada.
The documents don’t describe government spending plans. However, they do identify a target speed of five megabits per second and predict such service for as many as 280,000 new households.
It’s a priority for a group of 14 southwestern Ontario municipalities working on improved Internet for its region. Federal government attention to the issue is welcome, said Grey County Warden Brian Milne in an interview, Tuesday.
“It’s heartening to see that the federal government does recognize that high speed broadband is a priority for the rural areas,” Milne said. “I liken it to when Hydro came to the rural areas of the province in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he said.
“It’s not so much the Hydro itself as what you can do with it,” said Milne who farms in Southgate Township near Holstein.
The Southwestern Ontario Wardens Caucus has been actively lobbying federal and provincial governments for funding of its Southwest Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) network. The plan seeks to install high capacity, fibre optic service through the entire region regardless of population density among more than 300 communities and three million residents.
Tuesday’s budget also earmarks $40 million over two years for small craft harbours and $33 million over two years to support divestment of federally-owned, regional ports. In the Georgian Bay port at Owen Sound, divestiture talks between Transport Canada and grain elevator owner Parrish & Heimbecker broke off recently over questions about dredging costs. Grey County’s Milne said failure to dredge the harbour would limit grain shipments through the port and boost transport costs for grain farmers throughout the region.
Other agricultural measures in the budget include enhanced tax deferral for farmers who must dispose of breeding livestock because of extreme weather disasters. The government also plans to extend the tax deferral to include bees.
The tax measure may mean the government has recognized the need for greater consistency in disaster programs, Wales said. Historically, “that type of opportunity has really been a one-off . . . It looks like they’re giving it more legs,” he said.
As well, the budget announced a four-year pilot project to ensure cattle and hog farmers in western provinces against “unanticipated price declines.”
It’s a collaborative arrangement among farmers, federal and provincial governments to provide what budget documents describe as “enhanced risk management options.”
Wales said he’ll need to see more details about the new western program. However, he also said it may be the first example of a so-called Alternate Risk Management Program which is to be funded as a pilot under continuing federal agriculture policy known as Growing Forward II with funding from both governments and growers. Such programs are designed ultimately, however, to become 100 per cent funded by grower premiums, the OFA president said.
“I have to see the details,” Wales said. BF