Opposition Leader Stephane Dion Visits Farm Country

It has been quite a week.  Ontario producers got some good news.  The hard fought for RMP (Risk Management Program) was brought out by the same provincial liberal government who had fought it so long.  At the same time I was asked by local farmers to host a roundtable discussion on agriculture in Chatham, Ontario with Liberal leader Stephane Dion.  It was my job to host and MC a farm rally outside of Wallaceburg Ontario later that day.

I do it because local farmers ask me.  They are the guys who have stuck with me over a 20-year career as an agricultural writer.  However, I also do it because I believe Canadian agriculture needs a better policy to sustain food production and farm income in this country.  I do it because I believe my efforts can help.

It’s funny.  I’ve always admired Stephane Dion even though I don’t know the man.  He’s the guy who showed up with a knapsack from Quebec and was thrust into the cabinet of former Prime Minister Chretien.  He was entrusted with writing the “Clarity Act”, a very controversial piece of legislation in his home province of Quebec, which set out the rules for a future referendum on Quebec separation.  In my opinion, its one of the best pieces of legislation ever written in Canada.

Why you say?  Simply put we all remember how we felt the night of the 1995 Quebec referendum when we came within less than 1% of the vote from losing Canada.  After that Jean Chretien vowed never again.  He entrusted Stephane Dion with coming up with legislation, which set out strict rules for any future dealings with a Quebec referendum.

In many ways farm rallies are a forum for political “gamesmanship.”  Many farmers don’t believe in them in Canada because they think they are a waste of time where everybody goes home feeling good but nothing really happens.  However, I disagree.  I participated in enough of them to know that they force agricultural issues both on the political level and among agricultural commodity groups.  For instance its great news RMP is here, but it’s taken at least six or seven big and small farm rallies to get us here.  Without them, the momentum behind our commodity groups would have built much slower.

Farm rallies can get wild.  Having MC’s a few it’s like a swirling cauldron in front of you.  Emotions are high and the need is very acute.  I’m sure Liberal leader Stephane Dion was surprised by such an emotional display from farmers.  He surely wouldn’t be used to it.  The “gamesmanship” part had to do with his Liberal party.  In effect their past policies stole away the old agricultural safety net.  Conservatives have been the beneficiaries of past farm rallies.

So it is what it is.  The focus now is putting the political pressure on the Conservatives to support a federal contribution to RMP.  Many Conservatives were elected by farmer frustration in many rural ridings last time around.  Now farmers are angry with the Conservatives for re-nigging on their promises.  Now we are back to the Liberals again.  Hmmmmmmmm.

For my American readers this must seem so foreign.  American farmers are well taken care of with US agriculture policy.  In Canada on the other hand our constitution says that agricultural policy is jointly shared jurisdiction between the provinces and the federal government.  Some farmers call it agricultural policy ping-pong.  It’s a world away from the debate about the 2007 US farm bill.  Their activism will surely manifest itself on the political discord in 2007 and into 2008.

However, back to Stephane Dion and me.  I worked with the man the whole day.  He’s obviously very bright, and has a resume that is daunting.  I can see why people warm up to him.  He has a charismatic sincerity to him, which draws people in.  Still, even after several months as Liberal leader, some media folks might say he’s Mr. Invisible.

Of course everybody and his dog wants a piece of Stephane.  Like I said, I’ve always admired the man but have never got to chat with him.  During the roundtable I’m directing traffic and queries to Stephane, helping him out with questions and stick handling with people who want more and more.  He doesn’t know much about RMP, but we’re sure trying to convince him.

The farm rally was spirited.  However, I’ve managed wild before and it’s my job to tune the crowd up.  Stephane looked like he had found a new voters list to turn the tide against Stephen Harper.  He said he was going to make farm issues a priority in his future government.  Of course the gamesmanship of farm rallies doesn’t work if nothing changes.  Stephane Dion may never capture government.

I either sat beside or stood beside Stephane Dion all day but regrettably didn’t get much time to chat.  At the end of the day Stephane actually came up to me to chat.  However, he was quickly whisked away.  I hope someday he puts my name on a postcard and sends me his regards.