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Opinion: Agriculture faces challenges with Liberal minority government

With no western MPs and plenty of other priorities, the sector will fight not to be sidelined

Agriculture didn’t get a lot of attention during the recent federal election and that’s not likely to change with the new Liberal minority government.

The government’s priority is survival. That means a laser-like focus on immediate issues, as well as fulfilling major election promises — affordability, climate change and a national pharmacare program.

The ‘progressive’ opposition parties support all three and will push hard to make them happen.

The new minority will also have its hands full dealing with other issues, including construction of the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline. It’s unclear how, or even if, this can be achieved. The Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Greens will oppose it. It’s conceivable all three could make shelving Trans Mountain the quid pro quo for propping up the government. That said, no party wants to trigger another election too soon. Trans Mountain might be set aside as the new government focuses first on other issues.

Then there’s the lack of Liberal MPs from the Prairies.

The previous Liberal government won some brownie points among farm groups when it endorsed the Barton Report and its belief agriculture and food could be a much bigger contributor to Canada’s economy. It didn’t translate into votes on the Prairies. Not a single Liberal was elected in Alberta or Saskatchewan. One of the West’s highest-profile Liberal MPs, Ralph Goodale, known for his strong voice on agricultural issues in caucus and around the cabinet table, was defeated.

Only four of Manitoba’s seven incumbent Liberal MPs — all in urban Winnipeg — were re-elected.

There are fewer western farm voices in the government than before. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s easy to see how the government could view agriculture as a low priority.

But there’s always hope. Previous minority government’s have accomplished much because they must find consensus to avoid defeat.

Although the Liberals and progressive opposition all talk a good game when it comes to agricultural policy they all lack rural representation — something the Conservative official opposition has a near monopoly on.

One should never discount the potential impact of the next minister of agriculture. Eugene Whelan, who served as Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s agriculture minister from 1972 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984, advocated for farmers and pushed the agriculture agenda, including the implementation of supply management.

He increased support for farmers in 1977 through the Western Grain Stabilization Act. The same year he expanded cash advances to cover non-Canadian Wheat Board crops.

Whelan said in an interview he did so much because the prime minister, having admitted he didn’t know a lot about agriculture, gave him carte blanche.

That’s unlikely to happen with a minority government, especially in an era when more and more power is concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Getting the farmer’s voice heard in Ottawa is always a challenge but it’s likely going to be harder now. That means being more strategic than ever.

Farm organizations, where possible, would do well to find consensus among themselves before talking to the federal government.

With all that’s on the government’s plate it’s wise also to focus on the most important issues, especially those with straightforward solutions, such as reforming AgriStability and trade, which is in the economic interest of the country.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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