Nov. 22, 2005, was something of a political coming of age for many free trade prairie Reform-Conservative MPs who had cut their political teeth fighting against agricultural protectionism and tariffs.
One after another that evening, they stood in the House of Commons to voice their support for supply management, with its tariffs as high as 200 and 300 percent.
Politics made them do it.
“They swallowed themselves whole,” Liberal MP Wayne Easter quipped.
“It was all political,” said the then-prominent Medicine Hat MP Monte Solberg, who voted for the resolution and went on to hold cabinet positions in later Conservative governments.
“From a policy point of view, it was a step backwards, but at the time, we felt as a party it was important to make sure Quebec felt we were being sensitive to their interests.”
In a recent interview, Solberg said it was a tough evening for many free trade MPs from the Prairies.
“There were a lot of guys who had to swallow a lot of crow because they had been vocal on the issue, but welcome to the broader political agenda,” he said.
The atmosphere in the Commons was heated as the debate raged through the day.
MPs were treading on ice as thin as the wind-polished sheen that coated Parliament Hill inclines that late November day.
The stakes were high.
A federal election loomed, the minority Liberal government looked vulnerable and a crucial World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong was just two weeks away.
Bloc Québécois rookie MP André Bellavance seized the moment to put forward a motion that WTO negotiators be instructed to reject any deal that lowered supply management over-quota tariffs or in-creased guaranteed access tariff rate quota levels.
The parties negotiated the issue through the day. The BQ accepted a Conservative-proposed amendment that any WTO deal should also provide benefits for export sectors but rejected a Liberal proposal to water down the resolution by requiring protection of the system but allowing changes in existing rules.
The core of the motion was to reject any reduction in high dairy, poultry and egg protectionist tariffs.
After five hours of debate, the vote was called to demand no reduction in Canadian supply management agricultural tariffs.
Southern Alberta MP Ted Menzies, a former Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association president and leader of the Agri-Food Trade Alliance that opposes tariffs, rose in his seat.
“Yes,” he voted.
West-central Saskatchewan Conservative MP Gerry Ritz, who had little sympathy for protectionism in his early political life, rose: “Yes.”
Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who as president of the Canadian Citizens’ Coalition had condemned agricultural protectionism, was not in the House to vote but had sanctioned or ordered party support.
The final vote was 288-0.
That vote remains the no-compromise Canadian position, even as the country engages in trade liberalization talks with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership groups, where high supply managed import tariffs are at issue as Canada tries to negotiate better access for export commodities.
“It certainly has constrained our negotiators and I think has compromised Canada’s credibility in trying to negotiate better access for other commodities,” Canadian Sugar Institute president and Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance board member Sandra Marsden said.
The vote that late November night was what is called a standing vote, where each member has to personally declare a position. It was triggered by a parliamentary trick.
When Bloc Québécois MPs shouted “no” to their own motion, it required all MPs to take a public stand.
If more than five MPs rise to demand a standing vote, House rules require a recorded vote with names on the record.
Quebec farmers in the House of Commons public gallery that evening were confused by the BQ “no” vote.
“We had to explain to them it was a parliamentary tactic,” said Bellavance.
“We wanted a recorded vote be-cause any minister or a new government could say, well the party voted for it but we weren’t there that night,” he said.
“But everybody stood up from all parties, so we have it on paper. Everyone supported it. They can’t hide.”