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Editorial: Keeping the farm organizations in line

“Hardly a day goes by” may be an overused phrase, but not when it comes to the frequency of news releases from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada — we received 13 for the month of November. There’s nothing wrong with governments communicating with citizens, and some of the releases are pure business, such as brief notices of appointments to the board of Farm Credit Canada.

But more of the releases relate to the Harper government’s steady dribbing and drabbing of funding announcements, which are intended not only to gain publicity but maintain the divide-and-conquer strategy for farm organizations.

We don’t want to embarrass any particular organization by using an example because they all play the game. You can visit the AAFC news release page yourself to see the pattern, which goes something like this:

“Canada’s ruby red rutabaga industry is poised to make new inroads into the export market thanks to an investment of $100,000 announced today by Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Gerry Ritz at the annual meeting of the Ruby Red Rutabaga Association…”

The release will continue with a few manufactured quotes from Mr. Ritz, some (probably also manufactured) statistics about the importance of ruby red rutabagas to the Canadian economy, the name of the program under which the “investment” (it’s never a grant) was made, and of course a reference to that program being part of Growing Forward 2.

The release will also contain manufactured (with the help of the minister’s staff) complimentary quotes from the president of the association, which can be as blatant as, “This is another example of the results Minister Ritz has obtained for the Canadian ruby red rutabaga industry.”

As of last Friday there had been eight such releases since the beginning of November, with announcements totalling more than $4 million. This of course was money that was already budgeted, and which may have been announced before.

On one hand you can’t fault the red rutabaga president for taking part in this charade, because what choice does he or she have? AAFC has probably slashed if not eliminated red rutabaga research and the association has had to get a checkoff to do some itself. If it wants to get AAFC to kick in some matching money (though less than it spent before), it has to play ball, including saying nice things in the government press release.

When money isn’t involved, this process is a bit more unseemly. For example, when the Canada-EU trade agreement was announced, there was a volley of releases from farm organizations praising the deal to the rooftops. The facts that the details hadn’t been finalized and that negotiations would take another two years somehow weren’t mentioned.

Speaking of unseemly, the relationship between the minister’s office and the Grain Growers of Canada is getting a little too obviously close, though in this case we’re not sure who’s controlling whom. Late last Friday the minister’s office announced he would hold a press conference on Monday in Winnipeg, which was obviously to announce Canada signing the UPOV ’91 international seed treaty. On Sunday morning, the Grain Growers issued a release with letter to the minister calling for him to sign UPOV ’91. What a coincidence.

The message is clear. Farm organizations know that if they don’t support the government with rapid-fire compliments, they’re not going to be allowed in the game.

This process of the government pulling the farm organization’s PR strings has been ongoing for some time, but last week things were ratcheted up to a new level.

As we noted last issue, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz doesn’t accept grain company claims that the railways aren’t performing. Mr. Ritz is entitled to his opinion, but he is not entitled to enlist a supposedly independent Crown agency to do it for him. Every week for decades, the Canadian Grain Commission has issued a publication with statistics on grain movement. Never in our memory has the CGC issued a press release commenting on its contents — until last week.

“This year, producers in Western Canada saw record yields. So while our data shows that grain is moving to export at a faster pace, this year, it feels like it’s taking a lot longer to empty the bins,” CGC chief commissioner Elwin Hermanson said in the release.

It’s embarrassingly obvious that either Mr. Ritz or someone in his office phoned Mr. Hermanson and strongly suggested if not ordered the commission to issue this release. This is highly inappropriate. The CGC is supposed to operate independently in the interests of producers and the industry, not defend politicians.

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