Real consequences not revealed in the fine print of government documents

In the middle of a tense meeting last week with Canadian Federation of Agriculture directors, senior Agriculture Canada official Greg Meredith got a bit of a break.

A clanging fire alarm took precious minutes out of what was supposed to be an hour-long meeting. Meredith, assistant deputy agriculture minister, later joked that he had not pulled the alarm to get out of the hot seat but it was an idea for next time.

His performance in the lion’s den of angry farm leaders was a strong one — he was respectful and calm in the face of some strident criticism but did not back down from the government position that farm income support cuts are coming and are justified.

And unlike his minister Gerry Ritz, he did not tell them it was his way or the highway and leave the room.

However, one astonishing assertion Meredith made is a stark reminder that deliberately muddled and vague language used in government statements these days carries danger for Canadians who could be affected by whatever it is they are alleging to announce.

At the testy meeting with CFA leaders from across the country, one of the main streams of criticism was that while governments have been negotiating farm support cuts and major changes in farm policy direction for months, farmers and their leaders have been in the dark.

Au contraire, replied Meredith. The government has had extensive consultations and besides, the “outline” of the changes was in the Saint Andrew’s Statement issued in July 2011 after ministers met in the New Brunswick seaside town.

Really?

Parsing the eight-page document about the agreed-upon principles of the next Growing Forward deal, nowhere is there reference to significant cuts in business risk management spending or a significant shift of policy-making responsibilities to the provinces.

In fact, one of the most striking points was that then-Ontario agriculture minister Carol Mitchell refused to sign the BRM section, explaining later that ministers were talking about rule changes that would reduce farmer benefits and hurt Ontario farmers.

There was no such mention in the communiqué and other ministers, Ritz included, said she was wrong or wasn’t paying attention.

Turns out she was right.

So what was the “outline” Meredith talked about that should have alerted farmers to the farm program revolution that is coming?

Well, it said the main components would be competitiveness, adaptability, innovation and infrastructure. True, there was no mention of maintaining or strengthening BRM programs but should lack of mention have led people to assume they would be gutted?

It said the deal would lead to provincial “flexibility,” a principle already in the existing federal-provincial agreement. Should that have led farmers to imagine Ottawa would be shuffling much program design and implementation to the provinces?

It was a typical government proclamation filled with fuzzy words, vague concepts and little real detail.

But Mitchell called them on it, insisting ministers already knew some of the details of how they wanted to change programs. They just weren’t talking publicly.

Like most federal-provincial proclamations, Saint Andrews was hardly a clear outline of intentions that should have alerted farmers to the real consequences.

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