Is western ag losing trade influence?

Western Canada’s free-trading, export-oriented farm sectors are one of Canada’s shining economic stars, drawing in money and growth for the nation.

But they are political lightweights in Ottawa, which jeopardizes their futures, a point that drew repeated comments at the Fields On Wheels conference in Winnipeg in December.

“The history of the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows us that we’re in trouble,” said Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation.

“We have to think about actually impacting the trade priorities and the trade agenda in Ottawa.”

The outsized political impact of the dairy industry is widely recognized, and the automobile industry also gets huge political recognition in Ottawa political circles, but the massive economic value of the crop, beef and pork industries seldom attracts the notice of politicians.

Geoffey Hale, a University of Lethbridge Canada-U.S. relations expert, said farmers and others can’t assume they are being looked after by the federal government.

“The current government does not appear to be giving the same weight to western Canadian agricultural industries as its predecessor did,” said Hale.

“It’s not that they’re ignoring western agriculture, but their core interests… are elsewhere, autos being the most critical.”

Former Canadian chief agricultural negotiator Mike Gifford said Western Canada’s leading farm industries wield nowhere near the clout of that wielded by the supply management system within both federal and provincial governments.

He recalls the successful lobby efforts by the supply management sector during the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in the early 1990s. Supply management interests lobbied federal and provincial politicians and created a “complete preoccupation with dairy and poultry.”

Gifford said free market industries need to better push their own interests and “lobby as well as the supply management lobby.”

Dade said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s willingness to see the recent TPP talks stall and potentially die over defending supply management and the auto sector shows that some economic sectors have a lot of influence in Ottawa, while others don’t.

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