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Comment: How the supply management lobby influences politics

My unsuccessful federal leadership campaign is proof the sector has outsized political influence — for now

The following is a lightly edited excerpt of a chapter on supply management from a political memoir penned by Maxime Bernier that he chose to publish online.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of Canadians have little to no idea what supply management is really about.

According to a survey done in the summer of 2017, a majority — 58 per cent across the country — said they knew “nothing about it.” Just four per cent said they knew “a lot,” with the rest knowing “a little.” What Canadians know and hear about supply management is probably mostly positive, given that until recently, there was barely any criticism of the system in the media and academic world, or, of course, in political debates.

Despite representing such a small portion of our overall economy, the supply-managed sectors, and especially the dairy lobby, are extremely effective at making the case for their privileges. They have a large union bureaucracy and huge budgets, and they use them to influence public opinion, as well as to keep pressure on politicians and federal and provincial Agriculture Department officials. In Quebec, everybody knows that the Union des producteurs agricoles is more or less an extension of the provincial Ministry of Agriculture — or perhaps the other way around!

The supply management lobby makes sure that university professors, researchers and students in the field of agriculture will know on which side their bread is buttered. A quick search on the internet will reveal that the lobby distributes millions of dollars to fund research, university chairs, master’s and PhD scholarships, and various programs across the country, many of which directly relate to the teaching of “collective marketing of agricultural products.”

The lobby also puts pressure directly on all elected officials. Since my first election as MP in 2006, representatives from the local chapter of the Union des producteurs agricoles have been coming to my office twice a year in Beauce to “keep me informed” of agricultural issues. They have never failed to discuss supply management.

This whole dynamic is, of course, a typical example of the economic concept of Public Choice analysis, which explains what happens when the benefits of a policy are concentrated in a small group, while the costs are dispersed among the population at large. Although it would be in their interest to oppose it, the average Joe and Jane will have little incentive to do so.

It’s simply too complicated and costly to get informed and organized to achieve this goal, compared with what they could save if the policy was changed.

On the contrary, the group that benefits from it has a huge incentive to organize, mobilize its membership, get informed, be politically active and do everything possible to keep it in place, because they have so much to lose. Although the interest group is much smaller than the population negatively affected by the policy, its political influence is much larger than that of this amorphous group of uninformed and unorganized citizens.

  • Read more: Canada’s dairy farmers cling to protections as Trump demands concessions

This explanation makes a lot of sense. It’s very probable that the votes of a small number of farmers in a few key ridings made the difference in the final results of the Conservative leadership race. It’s the classic case of how interest groups can have an oversized impact: you mobilize your small troops to defeat any politician who threatens your interests, which ensures that nobody else dares to do the same.

However, elections to elect a government are fought under rules that differ from those of a leadership race, and that influence must be felt in hundreds of ridings. And with the constantly dwindling number of farmers under supply management, we may have reached a point where this dynamic is about to break down.

Martha Hall Findlay was the first leadership candidate of a major Canadian political party to propose the abolition of supply management when she ran in the 2012-13 Liberal race, although she wasn’t an MP at the time, having been defeated in the 2011 general election.

Her arguments were essentially the same as mine. Unfortunately, she lost that leadership race too, but not because of the supply management lobby.

Her candidacy was eclipsed by that of the star candidate, Justin Trudeau, and the issues she raised did not attract much attention beyond Liberal circles. She ended up with only six per cent of the vote in third place, way behind Trudeau’s 79 per cent.

Hall Findlay told an interviewer that while she was on Parliament Hill, many of her fellow MPs would secretly tell her that, “We know (supply management) has to go, but we just don’t have the votes.”

“That just drove me crazy,” she says.

She proceeded to publish a fascinating study for the University of Calgary School of Public Policy that not only makes the economic case for dismantling the system, but also explains why, contrary to what is widely believed, it is politically feasible.

She looked at how many dairy farms there were in each of the then 308 electoral ridings in Canada, and analyzed how the results of the 2011 elections would have changed had those farmers and the dairy community voted against the Harper government after a decision to abolish supply management.

She found that there were only 13 ridings in Canada with more than 300 dairy farms, eight in Quebec and five in Ontario (including mine, in third place with 465 farms). Conservative MPs comfortably held eight of these ridings. Her conclusion? The overall election results would not have been much different. “There are now few, if any, ridings where dairy votes could plausibly swing elections — particularly compared to the votes of all those in those same ridings who would benefit from dismantling supply management.”

This analysis would be even more relevant if applied to a Liberal rather than a Conservative government. The Conservative Party tends to be stronger in rural ridings than the Liberal party. The Liberals would have very little to lose electorally if they decided to scrap supply management.

Instead, they would finally have something real to brag about when they say their priority is to help the middle class. In the context of NAFTA renegotiations, they could argue they had no choice but to give it up in order to ensure a deal with the Trump administration.

I’m surprised that Liberal strategists haven’t thought of this yet. Or perhaps they have?

Maxime Bernier is member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Beauce. He was recently demoted to the back benches of the federal Conservative caucus for publishing a chapter of his political memoir on supply management.

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