If the supply management system is about to be weakened in the interests of a trade deal with the European Union, Ottawa is doing nothing to prepare the groundwork.
Speculation about a potential deal soared last week following talks between senior Canadian and European politicians in Ottawa.
While the Conservative government was typically tight-lipped about the meeting, uttering the usual banalities about no deal that isn’t in the best interests of Canadians, the usually obtuse Europeans were a bit more forthcoming.
“On agricultural issues, we are now in a more realistic zone but we are not there yet,” EU trade spokesperson John Clancy said in a post-meeting statement from Brussels.
What exactly is a “more realistic zone?”
Has Canada signaled that it is prepared to increase dairy product access through tariff rate quota expansion if the Europeans offer more beef and pork access?
Or does it mean that both sides agree that compromise is not possible for domestic political purposes, so let’s move on?
Critics of supply management fervently hope it is the former.
Supply management supporters hope it is the latter.
And with a deal likely to happen this year or not at all, the amazing thing is that no one really knows, or if they do, they are not talking.
If the government is prepared to make cheese access concessions, it would seem politically wise to begin signalling potential change to the politically influential supply management lobbies.
Yet that does not appear to have happened.
Last week, Dairy Farmers of Canada president Wally Smith insisted he has heard nothing.
“We are not privy to any kind of information,” he said during the DFC annual policy conference. “The government is negotiating this deal and they will include us in the conversation when they feel it is necessary.”
Realistically, it would be unwise for the Conservatives to drop a last minute bomb on the sector: we did our best and we know we promised to protect and defend you but listen, Wally, we had to do this for the greater good. The political damage could be substantial.
In 2004, the Conservative breakthrough in rural Ontario came in part because of a Reform-Conservative switch from dogmatic opposition to protectionism to an exception for supply management.
Any hope that the Conservatives have of regaining Quebec traction would be damaged by what could appear to be a last minute betrayal of the sector.
So if the government really is prepared for compromise, the politically astute strategy would be to begin to send out signals to those affected that try to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear: “Supply management would survive because over-quota tariffs will not be affected and market stability would be retained. Your industry is strong enough to cope with a few percentage points of market penetration by imports.”
It is an argument that could possibly be sold if the dairy and poultry sector leaders had time to prepare their members.
However, a market access announcement bomb would be politically explosive.
Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, the keeper of the file, seems more politically astute than that.