Bernier takes on supply management in Conservative leadership race

The future of Canada’s supply management system for milk, eggs and poultry has been thrust onto the national political agenda by a top candidate for the federal Conservative party leadership Maxime Bernier.

Bernier is calling for the abolition of the system after a new levy on dairy products builds 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 contest, was a vociferous advocate for the end of supply management. She still is, as president of the Canada West Foundation. Hall Findlay finished a distant third to Justin Trudeau’s landslide win.

However, Bernier is considered one of the front-runners in the Conservative party race.

Bernier, a member of Parliament from Quebec, has policies based on classical libertarian economics. He’s also calling for flat taxes and a reduction in the size of government.

Dairy farmers, however, are unimpressed with how Bernier is portraying their pricing system and themselves.

“When he starts, the guy in the $1,000 suit, and tells me I’m a millionaire and part of a cartel … anyone can tell you how hard it is to make payments when you get started,” said Mike Bechtel, who farms a dairy between Cambridge and Guelph in Ontario.

“We’re a long way from being millionaires.”

Bechtel is like other dairy farmers who have taken out Conservative party memberships to vote for someone other than Bernier.

Bernier has called these one-issue members “fake” Conservatives.

Dairy farmers like Pete Van Hemert of Belmont, Ont., who has taken out a Conservative party membership, finds the term insulting.

Although he has never been a member of a political party before, Van Hemert said he has always voted Conservative and considers himself Conservative.

“He (Bernier) has made it awfully public against supply management and ran us down the tube a lot of times,” he said.

Bruce Sargent is concerned with Bernier’s description of supply management in his speeches and on social media. Sargent, the son of dairy farmers, questioned Bernier on his ideas around supply management at a Bernier open house in Guelph, Ont.

Bernier said Canadians are paying two to three times the price of milk that they can buy across the border in the United States. By dropping supply management, he said Canadians could save $500 per year.

Sargent said Bernier is not telling the whole story. Larger research projects, such as the Nielsen Fresh Milk Price Report, shows that at the end of November 2016, Canadian average milk prices fell 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 to attract Canadians.

But Bernier cast doubt on Sargent’s claims.

“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 philosophical gulf that exists between supply management farmers and those opposing the system.

Farmers may be able to muster a strong influence in the leadership contest due to a system in which each riding gets equal weight in voting. That might help supply management farmers where they could control the riding with few members.

What could work against dairy farmers, however, is the number of candidates running for the party leadership, now at 14. That could split the vote and lessen the likelihood of a pro supply management candidate winning.

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