It’s an old trick tried by governments of every stripe, but it doesn’t hurt to flag it. That’s the practice of dribbling out funding announcements in order to get news coverage in advance of an election, though recently “flood” would be a better word. These are from Agriculture Canada so far in March, all mentioning a minister and/or a local MP. This doesn’t include the many announcements from other ministries.
$200,000 to Community Foundations of Canada.
$950,000 for the Atlantic Dairy and Forage Institute (ADFI).
$800,000 for the Lower Little Bow River Watershed project.
$122,000 to identify energy savings and green energy revenue streams.
$281,000 for the Agri-Health Network at St. Boniface Hospital.
$195,000 for exports of Canadian geoduck clams.
$126,000 for Flowers Canada.
$1.6 million for the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency.
$130,000 for the Canadian Renderers Association.
$65,000 for the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association.
$8 million for the beef industry.
$743,000 for the Canadian Horticultural Council.
$90,000 for the Manitoba Forage Council.
$175,000 for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada.
$24,000 to help increase market shares for albacore tuna.
$63,000 for the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association.
This is not to say that these projects are not worthwhile, but presumably they had already been budgeted or already announced. If not, then the government is sending a message that it’s only interested in funding these projects if there’s an election coming. If they were already approved, but the announcements are delayed for the pre-election period, what is that doing to the organizations’ cash flow and ability to begin projects?
Then there’s the issue of the officials of the funded organizations being required to have complimentary manufactured quotes in each press release. They can hardly refuse to do otherwise, but they are in effect being forced to support the current government during an unofficial election campaign. Many of these announcements are made by the minister in person so that photos can be taken with the recipient officials. Then there’s the issue of the associated travel costs for him and his staff.
These weren’t the only releases coming from Minister Ritz in March – he doesn’t miss a chance to jump on to good news such as 120 tonnes of hormone-free beef going to Europe, or access for pea flour into China. Again, this may be par for the course for all parties who’ve been in power, but one recent release was more unusual. On Feb. 28 Minister Ritz issued a statement welcoming the release of three AAFC farm income reports – short, medium and long term. Naturally, all three were positive. We presume a precedent has been set here, and when a regular departmental report projects an income downturn, the minister will issue a release on that as well.
CONTROLLING THE MESSAGE
Agriculture Canada may be eager to have the press report on staged funding announcements where the recipients have no choice but to smile and say nice things. It’s not so eager to have us report when farmers may not be so happy with its programs.
For the record, the story on page 6 this week was not written by reporter Ron Friesen. It was written by citizen Ron Friesen. As a reporter, he was advised that media could not attend one of a series of national Growing Forward “Public and Industry Engagement” sessions in Winnipeg last week. However, as a private citizen he could attend, though when he arrived he was told not to speak to anyone.
None of us in the media will argue that we should be allowed to attend and report on private meetings. But if meetings are public, then we are entitled to represent the members of the public who cannot attend.
We’ve run into this before. The explanation is that the farm representatives attending will hesitate to freely express their opinions if reporters are around. We have had challenges in our career, but one of them has not been to get farmers to express their opinions, which it seems they did last week.
The other objection is that media might not accurately reflect those opinions. But in such cases, the media – and in this case, especially the farm media with some background knowledge – are more likely to report accurately than some of the attendees with a vested interest. That’s more important than ever in these times when any “citizen journalist” with an agenda is free to attend and blog and tweet as much as they like. And how are we to know that AAFC will make decisions based on a range of views, rather than picking and choosing what it hears from some participants?
Following our objections, it appears that the AAFC website describing these sessions has been changed from “Industry and Public Engagement” to “In-Person Engagement.”
These are public meetings to develop public policy. The process should therefore be public. That includes farmers, and therefore, the media that represent them. [email protected]