The future of Canada’s supply management system for milk, eggs and poultry has been thrust onto the national political agenda like never before by leading candidate for the Conservative party leadership, Maxime Bernier.
Bernier is calling for the abolition of the system after a new levy on dairy products builds up enough funds to reimburse farmers for the investment they have made in quota.
Bernier isn’t the first leadership candidate for a major party to advocate dismantling supply management. Martha Hall Findlay, a candidate in the last Liberal leadership contents was a vociferous advocate for the end of supply management. She still is, as president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. Hall Findlay finished a distant third to Justin Trudeau’s landslide win, but Bernier is considered one of the leaders of the Conservative contest.
Dairy farmers, however, are unimpressed with the way that Bernier is portraying their pricing and themselves.
“When he starts, the guy in the $1000 suit, and tells me I’m a millionaire and part of a cartel… anyone can tell you how hard to it is to make payments when you started,” says Mike Bechtel, who dairy farms between Cambridge and Guelph. “We’re a long way from being millionaires.”
Bechtel is like other dairy farmers who have taken out Conservative party memberships in order to vote for someone other than Bernier.
Bernier has called these one-issue members “fake” Conservatives, which is something that dairy farmers like Pete Van Hemert of Belmont, Ont., who have taken out a Conservative party membership, find insulting.
Although he has never been a member of a political party before, Van Hemert says “I consider myself a Conservative. I’ve always voted conservative.
“He’s made it awfully public against supply management and ran us down the tube a lot of times.”
Bruce Sargent is concerned with Bernier’s description of supply management in his speeches and on social media. Sargent, the son of dairy farmers, who runs the video production company FarmBoy Productions, questioned Bernier on his ideas around supply management at a Bernier open house in Guelph, Ont.
Bernier says Canadians are paying two to three times the price of milk that they can buy across the border in the United States and as such, they will save $500 per year. Sargent says Bernier is picking and choosing numbers for his story, as larger research projects, such as the Nielsen Fresh Milk Price Report that shows at the end of November 2016 Canadian average milk price in between the commodity U.S. milk price and the milk price paid for no-added-hormones and antibiotic-free milk in the U.S. The Canadian price is also in the middle of the pack of a list of 13 countries. Sargent points to the fact that large supermarkets in the U.S. sell milk as a loss-leader, especially in the border areas in order to attract Canadians.
“You have stats, but I have the reality,” Bernier told Sargent. “You cross the border, you will see that a litre of milk will be half the price. I can prove that. It’s easy.”
The exchanges in the videos from the event show the broad philosophical gulf between supply management farmers and those opposing the system.
The difference versus past debates is that Maxime Bernier is a leading candidate for the Conservative leadership with the eventual potential power to make the changes.
Bernier also doesn’t believe that dairy and poultry and egg farmers have enough political clout anymore to make a difference.
“In my riding I have 5000 people under supply management,” he said at the Guelph meeting. (In the 2015 election) “I won with 60 per cent of the vote. Maybe half of them didn’t vote for me. Maybe I lost 3000 votes. But I will gain more vote with the population because they know they can cross the border from Beauce to Jackson, Maine in the U.S. and they do their grocery every weekend.”
Where farmers could have in influence is in the leadership voting process, where each riding gets equal weighting in voting for a new leader. In some ridings with few members, supply management farmers could have influence. What could work against dairy farmers is the fact that there are 14 candidates still running for leader and splitting their vote among the 14 will mean little impact.
That’s a concern for Bechtel who has been discussing voting strategically with colleagues and on Twitter. Not only he, but other family members have joined the Conservatives.
There have also been some farmers who have reportedly signed up to support Bernier due to his stance against supply management, but they aren’t being as public about it.
In order to vote for leader, a Conservative party membership needs to be purchased by March 28.