Reaching a new shore, a better shore, for Manitoba farmers and agriculture

In the last 10 years I’ve learned to back away from direct coverage of provincial politics, something which I once greatly enjoyed. I’m hoping to get back into it with a new Manitoba government that seems more relevant to rural and farming Manitoba.

I’ll bet thousands of Manitoba farmers are also eagerly awaiting action from a provincial government that pays them more attention, even if the actions aren’t dramatic or bold. It’s been almost ten years since the Manitoba NDP government stopped seeming to care much about the situation of mainstream, full-time, commercial farmers, so there are all sorts of snags, gaps, glitches and just plain bad policy to fix-up.

I wouldn’t expect anything too dramatic in the next few months. After a 16 year NDP regime, the new Progressive Conservative government will need months to come to terms with the true situation of provincial finances, issues, situations and works-in-progress. For instance, the NDP’s much-beloved Bipole III power line is partially built. Premier Brian Pallister hates it, but can he cancel it at this stage? A couple of weeks ago he wasn’t sure about that when he spoke with reporters like me. What’s the status of the Lake Manitoba outflow channel? The NDP announced it, but how much preparatory work has been done? All sorts of questions like this affect farmers, but the PC government won’t have definitive answers all at once, even though it is now in power.

When I spoke with new Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler last week he sounded the opposite of a radical or revolutionary. He praised the Agriculture department, lauded its staff and deputy minister, and spoke of “tweaking” programs and regulations, rather than re-engineering or overhauling everything. Pallister has seemed the same, offering/threatening few radical changes.

He seemed to be signalling a message of slow, moderate change to a new political direction in the speech at his swearing-in. (I must say I enjoy his speeches. I know lots of people think they are overlong and overly lyrical, but I enjoy a good political speech and admire how well Pallister crafts his. He’s a good writer.)

The central image of his speech was a fur trader from Winnipeg’s earliest days of contact between indigenous and Europeans, and he seemed to be trying to channel himself into the trader’s situation of needing to both significantly correct course in dangerous waters and to act calmly.

“He’s seeking a better shore. A place to trade. A place to prosper. A place to protect his family. He immediately understands the challenges he faces. He knows the dangers of over-reacting. He accepts the need to steer a new course gradually, deftly, to protect his cargo as he carves a new direction. This is our challenge: carving a new direction to a better shore.”

Pallister hasn’t promised much to farmers. He made a point out of not over-promising during the campaign and he has stuck with it. We know he has committed to building the Lake Manitoba channel and to lowering the Provincial Sales Tax, but he has not offered to eliminate the cap on rebates of school taxes on farmland or to re-filling all Agriculture department vacancies, which were also key asks of most farm groups.

The clearest sign of the “new course” and “better shore” Pallister is aiming at will probably be seen in his commitment to eliminating the “red tape” that slows, complicates, costs and sometimes strangles small businesses such as farms. He has promised to tackle that quickly, and that’s something he did back in the 1990s when he was in the Gary Filmon government.

But to see anything profoundly different from now, stay tuned (I’m guessing) at least until the autumn.

For me as a journalist, and a non-partisan, who covers farming, agriculture and rural Manitoba, Pallister has been striking all the right notes, at least in terms of relevancy to my readers. I covered a lot of Saskatchewan politics and government policy when I worked there from 1992 to 2001, which was easy, because the Roy Romanow NDP government always tried to be relevant and engaged with farming and the rural/small town economy. I regularly dealt with all the Romanow ministers in those years.

It was less that way with the Gary Doer NDP government when I moved here, but that was partly due to Winnipeg dominating Manitoba politics far more than either Regina or Saskatoon dominate Saskatchewan’s politics. Doer seemed to be running the same sort of rural-friendly government Romanow had. (I’m not talking about its policies, which many of you might have disliked, but in terms of being accessible and open.) Agriculture minister Rosann Wowchuk was always available, open, friendly and active in the mainstream of agriculture.

That all seemed to change in Doer’s last year in office, when he was no doubt already planning to move on. More confrontational wedge issues and policies began to appear, especially the moratorium on hog barn construction, and a combative phase between the farming community and the government evolved, where the government seemed to become almost-hostile to mainstream commercial farmers at times. Under new Agriculture minister Stan Struthers, the Manitoba government often seemed to see farmers as problem-causers needing correction than a dynamic, driving force in the economy. I covered many of those developments, but began having less and less direct contact with government ministers and events. The government was much less visible at farming events, and often there wasn’t much at its scheduled events that directly affected mainstream farmers. The final NDP agriculture minister, Ron Kostyshyn, was a likeable man who most believed meant well, but had very little power within the government.  I began to cover the provincial government indirectly, by speaking mostly to farm groups and other interest groups about what the government was doing. I had always spoken to those groups, but they tended to be in the background of stories. In the Greg Selinger years farm groups moved to the fore and the government moved to the background of its own announcements.

For Manitoba farmers today is a time of great hope and expectation that the new government will offer a more attentive eye and ear to their problems. For me as a journalist, it’s a time of anticipation and hope that I can once more find a more direct way of covering government and its policies that affect my readers. It’s been a long time.

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