New federal agriculture minister off to a promising start

Canadian hog farmers might have lucked out with the shuffling out of federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and the shuffling in of Marie-Claude Bibeau.

With the mother of all market access issues looming over pork exports, farmers need a minister who will act aggressively and with determination to head off the dangers and prepare farmers for disaster, and Bibeau is showing signs she might be that minister.

MacAulay was anything but.

The cabinet shuffle had nothing to do with African swine fever, the hog industry or agriculture. It was all about dealing with the ministerial bloodbath involved in the Jody-Jane-plosion.

MacAulay moved to Veterans Affairs, which Jody Wilson-Raybould had quit in February, and farmer’s daughter Bibeau probably seemed like a pretty good agriculture fit to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

At the Manitoba Pork Council annual meeting April 11, Bibeau was praised for fast and “innovative” action on restricting feedgrain imports from ASF-infected regions. John Ross, executive director of the Canadian Pork Council, said Bibeau had acted swiftly and in an unorthodox manner when presented with information about the risk that foreign feed presents in the transmission of the disease, which is presently devastating the Chinese hog herd and has spread to Poland, Belgium and France.

Those suspect feedgrains will now have trouble moving into Canadian hog production zones, which is a good thing.

Ross was less complimentary about MacAulay’s willingness to drive through changes that the industry needs. When Ross assumed his job, he thought getting approval for a national pork check-off agency would be “a slam-dunk.”

But even though Ross said the minister supported the idea, there appears to have been no action.

“That file has languished on former Minister MacAulay’s desk for about three and a half years,” said a frustrated Ross.

“While he pledged his undying support for it, he never managed to (move it) off his desk.”

MacAulay had excellent relationships with some provincial agriculture ministers, such as Manitoba’s Ralph Eichler, a Progressive Conservative. That no doubt helped get stuff done across the country. And he had a good relationship with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue. But he showed no signs of being a man of decisive action, which is what would be needed in a crisis.

The national pork agency proposal is not a life-or-death issue for the Canadian hog industry. Keeping out ASF, preparing for ASF and being ready to tackle the disaster of a possible ASF outbreak is.

As noted Egan Brockhoff, the Red Deer veterinarian immersed in the pork council’s ASF preparation work with the federal government, if ASF appears in Canada, it is more likely to be six months before any region of the country is able to export pork again. It could be a multibillion-dollar hit, more severe than what cattle producers saw with BSE.

So far Bibeau has shown a willingness to roll up her sleeves and deal with issues that need to be dealt with. She has seemed willing to get out and meet farmers across the country to hear their concerns.

When I met her a couple of times in March she seemed like somebody who wants to get stuff done and is willing to wade deep into the complexities of policy to get it done.

Her arrival in the agriculture portfolio has nothing to do with ASF. But if she turns out to be the minister she shows signs of being in the early going, farmers might have lucked out.

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