The Political Landscape Starts Shifting in Canadian Farm Country

A few months ago I was asked to write the “Market Trends” column for the Ontario Corn Producer Magazine. As I wrote the September piece the other day finding positives in the corn market was pretty hard to do. Other than the ethanol shine at the end of the rainbow, there is seemingly corn everywhere.

So cash corn prices are low, as low as I’ve seen them in my 25-year farming career. Last year at this time many thought prices had reached new lows. Getting used to a high Canadian dollar and another 11 billion bushel corn crop had everybody heading for the hills.

The difference last year was an election was in the offing. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin called an election in the fall after his government was defeated. At the time I said former finance minister Ralph Goodale and Prime Minister Martin had a short conversation and poof, Canadian grain and oilseed producers got $755 million.

As crass political moments go it certainly did not go down in the agricultural policy hall of fame. However, at the eleventh hour the Martin government seemed desperate even to save a few rural Liberal seats. It didn’t work. However, farmers received the welcome money anyway over the next six months.

By now we all know the rest of the story. The Conservatives were swept into power promising to change agricultural policy, as we knew it. There was $1.5 billion promised above Liberal agricultural safety net spending. So far none of it has reached the ground. Federal and provincial agricultural ministers have once again agreed to disastrous “margin based” programs.

For many farmers its got them looking in the rear view mirror. Have the Liberals been punished and do they deserve another shot at agricultural policy? Are they sincere about adapting what Ontario farm groups call a “Risk Management Policy” which effectively manages “price risk?”

Clues came a few weeks ago when I was invited to meet former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae who is now running for the open Liberal leadership. I got the call from some local farmers who told me Bob Rae was coming to a farm near Sarnia and they’d like me to meet him. So I set off that morning to meet Bob Rae or “Comrade Bob” as one of the farmers said.

Arriving at the farm it was clearly set up for something out of my element. I don’t do politics and this thing was set up for folks who liked this type of thing. We sat around and chatted when suddenly Bob Rae came by and stuck his hand in mine. I greeted him as warmly as I could. He had many other hands to shake.

His speaking remarks to the assembled crowd were very revealing to me. He touched on the NDP and why he is no longer part of them. Having read his last book, “The Three Questions”, I knew a little bit of that story.

He said that he was the only Ontario Premier to have a day named after him. Well everybody laughed. He said what would you rather have a “Rae Day” or a “Harris year?” At the end of the day he sat down with farm leaders to discuss future agricultural policy.

Bob Rae mentioned the fact that his provincial government had supported GRIP (the forerunner of MRI) and NISA. He was promptly told that these agricultural safety nets had been eliminated. Clearly surprised Bob Rae asked why. The answer was his Liberal co-patriots had helped orchestrate that. I told him if he embraced the new counter-cyclical price risk program like RMP, he’d flip several rural seats if he were elected leader.

Who knows if I hit pay dirt with that statement? I generally don’t take part in any political discord these days. That’s just the way it is. However, its clearly evident to me that Canadian farm country is changing. The disappointment in Conservative agricultural policy is very evident. I even have read commentary from rural Ontario Conservative MP’s who aren’t happy either. Some of that is hitting pay dirt.

Last week I picked up this Canadian Press report quoting the Director of Communications for AAFC, Conrad Bellehumeur.

“We have to negotiate with the provinces and get their permission for any changes to the (CAIS) program.”

“We feel we’re going to be adding and changing so many elements to the current income stabilization program that at the end of the day, we’ll have a completely new program.”

Loose translation is CAIS doesn’t work and we’re learning its political suicide. So let’s change the program, do whatever we have to do to save face. Or the hated Liberals will catch up to us.

Whether I have that one right I don’t know. But what I do know is that the political landscape is changing in farm country. It didn’t take long. How is manifests itself will surely be measured when and if the safety net money flows.