Agriculture, rural issues ignored in political leaders’ debate

For two hours Aug. 6, Canada’s political leaders vied for Canadians’ votes, debating the economy, energy and environment, democratic reform and foreign policy.

Agriculture wasn’t mentioned.

With the economy top of mind, Canada’s political leaders didn’t feel the need to talk about the sector that contributes $106 billion to the Canadian economy per year and accounts for one in every eight jobs in this country.

Nor was there substantive mention of the drought in parts the Prairies, particularly Alberta, where cattle producers have said they may have to sell livestock because hay is in short supply.

The drought got a brief mention from Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who roped it in with other weather events to argue about climate change.

That was all, despite the fact that the federal Conservatives cut risk management programming significantly under Growing Forward 2, a move farm groups have said they want to renegotiate under the next agriculture budget and would like to raise during the campaign.

Manufacturing garnered a few mentions during the debate, al-though none of the leaders provided specifics.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau argued Canada had lost 400,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs. He didn’t say it, but many of those jobs were in food processing, Canada’s largest manufacturing sector.

Prime minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, insisted Canada’s manufacturing sector is expanding. However, various agri-food processors might beg to differ.

Meat packers have warned that they have cut back on value-added processing because they can’t find workers to do the jobs.

Canada’s agriculture ministers, including federal minister Gerry Ritz, recently discussed the state of the food processing sector at the annual ministers meeting in Charlottetown.

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute has repeatedly said Canada’s food processing sector has a trade deficit, which sat at $2.3 billion in 2012. That didn’t warrant a mention during the debate either.

The prime minister briefly touted his government’s immigration record in the debate. This despite the fact that the current immigration system makes it extremely difficult for farmers, processors and other agribusinesses to bring in low-skilled workers who often don’t qualify for permanent residency.

Trade, meanwhile, was only mentioned in broad terms. Not one of the parties brought up the Trans Pacific Partnership or the future of supply management.

This despite speculation about the future of Canada’s dairy sector, which could sway political support in Quebec and Ontario.

With TPP trade ministers likely to meet again this month, the Pacific trade deal remains an election issue. Expect supply management to surface in the French leaders debate scheduled Oct. 2.

Agriculture wasn’t the only topic ignored. Canada’s political leaders weren’t interested in debating more general rural issues either.

Transportation, labour, country -of-origin labeling, U.S.-Canada relations, genetically modified organisms, gun control, research, food safety, rural health care, seniors care and rural internet access were not raised during the two-hour debate.

One shouldn’t be surprised. In the modern world of politics, agriculture has rarely been a political linchpin. The sector barely warrants a mention in mainstream political and media circles on a day-to-day basis unless a crisis is imminent.

Nor has the sector been known to swing many votes lately, particularly as more Canadians call urban centres home. The shift is reflected in the latest riding boundary alterations.

For all we know, the Aug. 6 leaders debate will be the only opportunity Canadians have to see all four federal political leaders answer questions and debate issues on the same stage in English.

Each leader is vying to become Canada’s next prime minister. By ignoring agriculture and rural issues completely, what message is being sent to rural Canadians?

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