Quick rise | The Grain Growers of Canada have gained the attention of the Conservative government
Shortly after the Conservative government announced in spring 2011 that it would end the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, pressure quickly built from anti-monopoly farmers that the border be immediately opened.
This was a key part of the Conservative prairie electoral base in its successful 2011 campaign for a majority government.
Richard Phillips, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada, said he recognized that farmers were prepared to break the law and run the border into the United States assuming that a government committed to ending the monopoly would not charge them.
“There could have been chaos at the border, U.S. retaliation, who knows?” he said in an August interview as he left GGC to become president of the Canada Grains Council.
So in spring of 2011, he visited Agriculture Canada officials to ask how the transition would occur. The government had a plan.
Beginning Aug. 1, 2011, all farmers would have the freedom to market through the new CWB or privately, he was told.
Phillips recalls telling them it would be a “disaster” if there were not transition rules. He urged a period of grace to Aug. 1, 2012 to work out the details.
He took that message to agriculture minister Gerry Ritz who said he needed a guarantee from the most strident anti-wheat board farmers in the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and Western Barley Growers — both Grain Growers of Canada members — that they would accept a year-long transition.
On May 12, 2011, Phillips delivered a letter to prime minister Stephen Harper signed by his most anti-CWB members suggesting an Aug. 1, 2012 open market to give the industry and the wheat board time to adjust.
In late May, Ritz said publicly that the open border would not happen until Aug. 1, 2012 and he urged farmers to be patient.
“That was a huge victory,” said Phillips. “It gave the industry and the board a year to prepare and it made the transition smoother. I regret that the CWB board did not use the time to do anything but oppose, but that was their choice. But it allowed the industry to get ready.”
The story illustrates the influence that the Grain Growers of Canada lobby group has gained in Ottawa since the Conservatives took power in 2006.
It has been the Conservative go-to group for agricultural policy verification. Early on in his term, Ritz signaled that the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, traditionally the most powerful farm lobby, was on the outside because it did not embrace his grain ‘market freedom’ promise.
GGC has supported the broad Conservative agenda of trade ex-pansion and the end to the CWB monopoly.
Yet it also has criticized the Conservatives on some issues, most notably underfunding of research, tepid rail service legislation and this year’s cuts to farm income support programs.
On those, Ritz has said they are wrong.
However, on issues close to the Conservative heart ranging from marketing freedom, trade, to the need to fight ‘non-science-based’ restrictions on genetically modified varieties, Grain Growers have been allies.
The result is that GGC regularly is cited as one of the most influential agricultural lobby groups in Ottawa, less than a decade after it came on the scene.
“ I just think it is a question of un-derstanding what it is the government wants to achieve, whatever the government, and finding out how to accommodate that in a way that also helps farmers,” said Phillips.
As a former staff person for the Saskatchewan Liberal Party and then federal Liberal minister Reg Alcock in charge of the Canadian Wheat Board file (2003-06), Phillips was looked on with suspicion by some Conservative ministers.
“It was a question of showing how their goals and our goals meshed,” he said.
In his new role as president of the Canada Grains Council, Phillips will deal more with bureaucrats on regulatory issues and less with politicians on political ones.