The federal Conservatives are looking at Agriculture Canada to shoulder a larger-than-average share of upcoming spending cuts, similar to what the Liberals did in their 1995 deficit-cutting budget.
In his March 29 budget, finance minister Jim Flaherty said Agriculture Canada and its affiliated agencies will have to cut 10 percent from their spending — $310 million — within two years.
Details are vague as yet, but cuts of that size could have a wide-ranging effect on government program spending and the number of civil servants available to deal with agricultural issues.
Only public safety, national de-fence and international assistance are being told to take a larger dollar hit.
Agriculture is on par with Health Canada, although health has a much larger base budget.
“This really does seem like a disproportionate hit on agriculture,” New Democratic Party agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said.
“This can’t help but hurt farmers, either in program spending or the efficiency of getting farmer services out.”
The government’s three-year plan to end the deficit includes a projection that 19,200 federal public service jobs will be lost. Agriculture Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency employees are expected to be a significant part of that number.
In a March 30 news conference, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said he was not ready to reveal how the department will meet its spending cut requirement.
“Those details will be coming out in the days and weeks (ahead),” he said. “I can assure you that none of the changes affect food safety in any way.”
Farm groups said it was difficult to react until they know how the planned cuts will affect farmers, whether through program spending cuts or staff reductions.
“We really do have to take a wait-and-see attitude until the details are known,” said Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett.
Grain Growers of Canada president Stephen Vandervalk said his members understand the need for government restraint in the face of multibillion-dollar deficits.
“But it is important to remember that agriculture didn’t cause this deficit, and in fact we have been one of the consistent bright spots in the economy.”
The impact on Agriculture Canada staffing could be known by the end of this week.
The budget tabled in Parliament also promised that current federal-provincial negotiations over a new five-year agriculture policy framework will lead to “a refocused suite of business risk management programs.” Ritz said the government is refocusing support programs “so that they can support farmers and processors for the long term.”
One industry official speculated that it could signal a shift to more farmer insurance plans rather than open-ended government spending obligations.
Ritz said the savings will come from consolidating delivery of grants and contributions in the department, amalgamating such services as information technology between Agriculture Canada and CFIA and creating a single CFIA office for permits, licenses and registrations.
The budget also announced:
- a two-year, $44 million contribution to the Canadian Grain Commission to cover deficits while the government changes legislation and regulation to allow more cost-recovery. Ritz confirmed that the government wants to amend the Canada Grain Act amended and change CGC regulations by April 1, 2014
- a contribution of $51.2 million over two years for food safety work at the CFIA, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, although the agriculture budget cuts include $56 million in CFIA spending reductions over three years
- continued emphasis on trade liberalization deals for agriculture
- a renewal of a pledge to increase high-speed internet service in rural Canada
- the launch of a program, announced last year, that will forgive a portion of student loans for health-care professionals willing to practice in rural Canada.