As the federal Liberal leadership contest grinds its way toward an April climax, Toronto candidate and former MP Martha Hall Findlay continues her campaign to abolish supply management.
During the only leadership campaign forum on the Prairies, Hall Findlay won audience applause in Winnipeg Feb. 3 by repeating arguments that the system of production quotas, price setting and import protection should be phased out be-cause it protects a small farm elite with above-average incomes and millions of dollars in assets while hurting Canada’s poor through higher basic food prices.
“It is regressive,” she said. “It is unconscionable to me that we keep a program that hurts the poor the most.”
Justin Trudeau, the presumed front-runner in the campaign, rejected the idea but offered no detail about why or if the system should be reformed.
In what his campaign declared to be Trudeau’s assertion of the “important contributions farmers make to the Canadian economy,” Trudeau stood on both sides of the issue.
“I’m always looking for ways to reduce the costs for consumers of high quality food, but it can’t come at the price of gutting livelihoods of Canadian farmers,” he said.
Those who want to end supply management “pretend we live in a free market when it comes to agriculture,” but don’t offer an alternative system, he said.
Would prices at wholesale and retail levels be regulated to make sure lower dairy and poultry prices paid to farmers are passed on to consumers, he asked.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
While supply management was not a headline issue during the Winnipeg debate, it will have a much higher profile when candidates hold a late March debate in Montreal in the buildup to the April 14 announcement of the next leader in Ottawa.
Hall Findlay, briefly an MP and a previous Liberal leadership candidate before being defeated in the 2011 election, has campaigned for a change in party policy on supply management for months.
She says many Liberal MPs privately agree but are afraid to confront the farm lobby.
Last year, she published a report through the University of Calgary that argued for change and suggested the political price would not be as high as many MPs fear.
The report argued that while the Liberals created supply management in the 1970s to deal with volatile markets and industry poverty, it has since become a “cartel” that protects only seven percent of farmers at the expense of consumers.
In Winnipeg, she said Canadian export sectors have had to give up potential gains in previous trade deals so Canada could protect supply management. The result is that dairy processors are moving production to countries where raw milk supplies are cheaper.
“We are exporting jobs.”
Hall Findlay argues Canada should phase out the system over a number of years using the Australian model of a temporary consumer tax to compensate dairy and poultry producers for the loss of their system and some of the value of their quota.
She said there were fears for Canada’s wine industry during the 1988 Canada-U.S. free trade talks, but the result is “a thriving wine industry. The same can happen in dairy.”
Her arguments on supply management are among the few agricultural flashpoints in the Liberal leadership contest.