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Editorial: Leadership needed

One of the most important roles of our political leadership is right there in the job title. We hire these folks to lead.

Often that means making the hard decisions and telling people what they won’t want to hear.

Naturally some are better at it than others.

The late U.S. president Harry Truman popularized the phrase “the buck stops here” during his time in office, by keeping a sign with the phrase on his desk.

He wasn’t exactly dealing with consequence-free choices either. His term saw two atomic bombs dropped on Japan and U.S. troops sent to Korea.

Perhaps the plaque that should be gracing the desk of Justin Trudeau in the Prime Minister’s Office in the case of the nation’s supply-managed economies, would be along the lines of “we’ll figure it out later.”

Granted, the Trudeau government has been in the hot seat on the trade file since it soared to power in 2015.

It had the Trans-Pacific trade deal in all its various incarnations (now finally the CPTPP) to deal with, along with the Canada-EU deal (CETA) and, of course, the continental trade deal now dubbed USMCA.

The nature of any negotiations requires a certain amount of secrecy and discretion. It wouldn’t do to reveal too much of the bottom line when a bit of posturing might garner a better outcome.

But that need has to be balanced with the needs of those who will be affected by the deals that are struck, because those individuals need time to plan and react. If they’re treated too much like mushrooms — kept in the dark and fed horse pucky — they get blindsided.

This is the unenviable position that Manitoba’s milk producers now face. A few percentage points here, and a few percentage points there, and they now find themselves — at least potentially — losing a substantial portion of their own domestic market. Their already restricted ability to export has been further reduced. The nation as a whole will ultimately benefit but there is nothing in this for them.

As our Lorraine Stevenson reports in our Oct. 18 issue of the Co-operator, Manitoba milk producers are now under a cloud of uncertainty, and that’s not good for the sector, or the families affected.

They no longer know if they can safely invest in their own businesses. Their partners in the value-added chain face similar concerns, causing the sector to essentially seize up in a status quo situation. They need clarity on what lies ahead as quickly as possible.

The need to change and adapt has never been stronger.

One doesn’t have to like or dislike the concept of supply management to recognize this situation is fundamentally unfair to the producers in question and a strategic error for the nation.

By bumping along, through three trade deals now, without a clear goal, fighting a rear-guard action, and hoping to consolidate and regroup at a later date, Canada is surely sowing the seeds of its own ultimate defeat in this area.

It’s time Canada’s political leaders tackled this political hot potato and stopped paying it lip service to garner support in vote-rich and dairy-rich regions such as Quebec.

It’s time for them to lead, and to start by telling those they’re leading what the final destination might look like.

We’ve seen examples of what piecemeal change of complex and highly regulated systems look like before.

There was a time in the grain sector where there was a far heavier regulatory footprint, right down to governing freight rates and a statutory single desk for selling wheat and barley.

That has changed wholesale, but at a cost. Many of the players in that decades-old value chain were ill prepared for the new world order when it arrived. In particular the Prairie pools floundered, and ultimately none remain.

Life goes on, but farmers, who once owned a significant chunk of grain handling and secondary processing on the Prairies, lost a lot of involvement up the value chain when their co-operatives disappeared.

Stability in the dairy sector, created by the regulatory climate, has allowed farmers and processors to invest in what has traditionally been a narrow-margin business; it has given financial institutions confidence, supporting tens of thousands of jobs and contributing to the economic well-being of Canada.

Without a plan to help this sector adapt and grow, all of that is now at risk. Will these agriculture sectors slowly sublimate away while successive governments dither? Or will someone, at long last, show some leadership at the political level?

It will be a hard conversation, and it should probably happen behind closed doors to keep the trade negotiations on an even keel.

But it must happen. These farmers need to know what the national plan is, so they can implement it on the farm level. They deserve that much, at least.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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