Policy change process under fire

Sask. minister unaware of “cooked up” deal

WHITEHORSE — They agree that the new five-year farm policy framework will benefit their farmers, but two provincial ministers argue that next time, the process should be different.

Saskatchewan’s Lyle Stewart signed the Growing Forward 2 agreement with reservations.

Ontario’s Ted McMeekin signed it with more enthusiasm.

But both said the next process to negotiate a long-term farm program framework should be improved.

For McMeekin, the issue was the involvement of farmers.

Even as the federal government was bragging about its broad consultation process with industry over the past two years, farm organization leaders across the country were complaining that the consultations didn’t provide farmers with enough details of the proposed changes.

McMeekin, involved in his first national agricultural negotiations since being named minister late last year, heard the complaints and became one of the most open ministers with details for his farm constituents.

“They (farmers) were saying we would be much more trustful of a process if it actually involved us, and I agree,” he said.

Stewart’s complaint was more about what he saw as a deal “cooked up” behind Saskatchewan’s back during the past two months by other provinces to reduce benefits under the AgriInvest program. With overwhelming provincial support, federal minister Gerry Ritz, who is from Saskatchewan, accepted it.

Stewart signed the deal because he supported most of it, but he seethed because Saskatchewan producers have the highest enrolment in AgriInvest in the country — 93 percent. They wanted the program unchanged.

He said he was clear about Saskatchewan’s objection to watering down AgriInvest when ministers met in Toronto in July.

But a British Columbia-led discussion among all the other provinces led to a deal to reduce government investment in AgriInvest by one-third in the new agreement in return for a small reduction in proposed cuts to AgriStability.

Stewart said Saskatchewan did not know the talks were going on until a conference call of deputy ministers before the Whitehorse meeting presented it as a done deal.

“The way the deal was reached, we’re not happy about it at all, and hope that this will never happen again in federal-provincial and territorial negotiations,” he said.

“I don’t think any province should have been treated like this, let alone the province with the most at stake in agriculture.”

Stewart said that while many producers will be disappointed by the cuts to AgriStability, he thinks they will accept it.

The trigger for payments under AgriStability is being dropped from 85 percent of historic income to 70 percent, stripping close to $2 billion from expected government obligations over the next five years.

“There will be some disappointment, but they got that with an 85 percent trigger, some of them could actually trigger in a profitable year,” said Stewart.

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