Fundamental policy issues deserve face-to-face meetings

Are the days of public meetings held to gather the opinions of citizens on major policy issues over?

Can online comments replace face-to-face gatherings in community halls?

Saskatchewan is on that path as the government reviews the Farm Security Act, responding to concerns raised when the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board bought 115,000 acres from Assiniboia Farmland Ltd. Partnership. The deal raised the potential for large institutional investors and foreign entities with deep pockets to present new competition in the province’s farmland market.

Public consultation will be conducted through an online survey and consultations with farm groups, investors and other stakeholders. People may also provide written letters and submissions.

Agriculture minister Lyle Stewart said this consultation should provide adequate guidance, and deputy agriculture minister Alanna Koch said, “I think the days of public meetings have kind of come and gone. People expect access online.”

She is partly correct: any public policy discussion today demands an online component for its ease of access and cost effectiveness.

The government conducted a web based consultation process on agricultural drainage in 2013-14. The online discussion attracted 491 participants.

A survey was answered by 480 people. Only eight people attended the one meeting held on the subject.

While that process might have been appropriate for the drainage issue, the question of who can own farmland has more profound implications for rural areas. We believe the issue deserves a series of public meetings.

Since the days of European settlement, almost all farmland has been owned by farm operators, active or retired, and their relatives. When land changed hands, neighbours or other expanding farmers usually bought it.

Since 2002, only Canadian citizens, permanent residents and 100 percent Canadian owned companies could own farmland without restriction. Non-Canadians could own no more than 10 acres.

However, the rising price of agricultural commodities and increased concern around the globe about food security has increased corporate and offshore interest in owning Saskatchewan farmland.

If ownership restrictions were removed, it would potentially increase the number of bidders on farmland, driving prices higher. Those selling land would benefit. It could also provide welcome sources of new capital for the agricultural industry.

However, that would create barriers for beginning farmers and locals wanting to expand. It could also increase the amount of land controlled by those living far away and likely more interested in just profits than the farming lifestyle and the local community.

It is an issue of deep and lasting importance to the nature of the province and deserves a commensurate level of public discussion.

The current consultation process might provide valuable feedback, but it won’t give the issue or the debate the prominence and public engagement it deserves. The importance of an issue alone is not enough to capture the attention of the citizenry.

Well-publicized public meetings would take the discussion beyond narrow stakeholder involvement and attract the community and media interest this issue deserves.

Also, the give and take of face-to-face discussions can help forge consensus from a diversity of positions.

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