Pressing ag issues in campaign paying off

Manitoba’s farm and rural-related organizations were glad they worked so hard to pressure political parties to address their concerns in the provincial election campaign.

That’s because the parties seemed unwilling to be pinned down on crucial issues, but the organizations forced them to deal with their concerns.

“The messaging seems to be getting there,” said Keystone Agricultural Producers president Dan Mazier about its Twitter campaign drawing attention to farmer concerns.“They’re picking off things slowly but surely.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business pushed the parties on whether they would abandon the cap on school tax rebates on farmland, and was thrilled to get responses from all the parties on a touchy issue.

“That is a big issue for our members who operate agri-businesses,” said Eliot Sims, the CFIB’s Manitoba director.

The overall provincial election campaign focused on mainstream issues with the biggest being NDP premier Greg Selinger’s 2011 broken promise to not raise the sales tax and the NDP saying PC leader Brian Pallister couldn’t be trusted with government services or on social issues.

Multiple mistakes by the provincial Liberal campaign derailed its attempts to get voters to notice its novel ideas such as privatizing liquor stores and embracing the Uber taxi system, as well as officially recognizing Louis Riel as Manitoba’s first premier.

However, organizations such as KAP pushed their agendas hard.

On the Twitter hash tag for the election, #mbelxn, KAP’s policy priorities were visible and prominent. It was probably the most visible industry or interest group campaign other than the Disability Matters campaign, which seemed to become a mass movement of people demanding politicians take disability issues seriously.

KAP’s Twitter ads challenged party leaders and politicians to deal with the struggles of young farmers and declining provincial investment with agricultural research and development.

It received few direct responses to some questions but heartening attention on others. The PCs said they plan to embrace the Alternative Land Use Services program, which pays farmers for setting aside environmentally sensitive land.

KAP and CFIB confronted the parties on the $5,000 limit to farmland tax rebates on school taxes, getting a promise from the Green party and the Liberals to scrap the limits. The PCs said they would consider it only after reducing the sales tax, which won’t be for years, and the NDP did not offer to lift the cap.

CFIB Manitoba director Eliot Sims said he was happy to see the Greens and Liberals offer to fix a big problem for farmers and was also happy to remind the PCs and NDP about it.

“It’s not being taken seriously by all the parties. Some are taking it very seriously,” said Sims.

“There is some significant lobbying needed to convince political parties that this is an issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.”

KAP sees its efforts during the campaign as part of a lobbying effort that sets up the next government and legislative sessions. Essentially, it is briefing the parties on issues it wants dealt with.

“People are beginning to realize agriculture’s everywhere and we’re getting into that normal, everyday conversation, just like the Disabilities (campaign),” said Mazier.

Manitoba Beef Producers president Heinz Reimer said issues such as water management and access to crown land are hot for farmers, but even bigger are the general concerns with Manitoba’s high tax load. Cattle producers feel they pay too much tax and get worried when they seem the provincial government’s structural deficits.

“A lot of people say government just needs to control its spending,” said Reimer.

The campaign became nasty as the election headed into its last days with the NDP launching a series of personal attacks on PC leader Brian Pallister, demanding he reveal his personal tax return and describing him as “homophobic” for objecting to anti-bullying legislation that he said wasn’t fair to religious schools.

When the smoke clears after the election ends, Manitoba’s farm, rural and business groups will be hoping that some of their issues are remembered and get on the next government’s agenda.

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