The challenge to Freeland: Don’t let the Green agenda kill the Growth agenda

Farming and other growth industries don't need to clash with a "Green" agenda, but they might if the new finance minister doesn't handle things right

Prairie farmers should be happy to see Chrystia Freeland become the federal finance minister.

She’s a champion of free trade and expanded global trade; she has great financial understanding; she’s tough as nails; she has deep western roots.

But she’s being brought in to Finance in the midst of loud talk about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanting to launch a bold agenda of government spending that turns  this pandemic health and economic crisis into “an unprecedented opportunity” to rebuild Canada’s economy to be better than before, and suited for his vision of the future.

If you’re a fiscal hawk you won’t like that, but for those who think now is the right time to use government spending to patch over the gaping holes in the economy and society, you’ll probably like the sound of it. For farmers it isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing. It depends how it’s done, and what the focus is.

Right now the PM doesn’t sound like he’s forgotten the moderation and careful balancing of interests that has marked this Liberal government, especially post-2018.

“This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada,” he said yesterday. “A Canada that his healthier and safer, greener and more competitive. A Canada that is more welcoming and more fair. This is our moment to change the future for the better.”

There’s lots of buzz about JT wanting to establish an impressive green legacy with which to etch his prime ministership into the history books. That isn’t necessarily a threat to farmers, agriculture or food. I note particularly his pairing of “greener and more competitive” in the phrase above. That’s the kind of balance farmers need in order to keep expanding their industries and contribution to Canada. “Green” should be an opportunity, not a threat.

But here’s the challenge for both the PM and Freeland: a cabinet dominated by big city MPs who don’t necessarily understand anything about farming or agriculture and who can easily fall into primitive polarities between things that are green and those things done by farmers. We’ve seen this for many years at municipal and provincial government levels, with attacks on conventional and contemporary farming practices spurred by concerns that aren’t backed by science but that play well with urban and non-farming populations. From pesticide restrictions to hog barn bans, local politicians have sometimes played to popular misconceptions rather than committed to sound, science-based policies.

We’ve seen a few alarming things from this federal government. The carbon tax, while not a make or break issue for most farms by itself, has become emblematic of a government that doesn’t understand the precarious situation many farms are falling into and ignores the government’s own hopes of greatly increasing Canadian agricultural production, exports and competitiveness. New, tougher environmental approvals for major infrastructure projects, such as port facilities, have bogged down some much needed capacity expansion. And many canola growers were scared silly when it looked like some essential neonicotinoid herbicides might be banned after an over-hasty review by regulators.

Yet the government also vocally supports the development and expansion of Canadian agricultural production, as with the major investment in the protein supercluster and cross-government support for significant projects like the Merit Functional Foods plant in Winnipeg. Certainly, with its words, the federal government sees farming and agriculture as critical growth industries that it wants to see expand and further enrich the nation.

So that’s the challenge to Freeland and the PM: Give Canadians the “green economy” that they and so many want, but do it while building and promoting the essential work farmers and the agriculture industry do for Canada. Stopping the “green” and “growth” agendas from clashing is something that might take some careful management. Let’s hope the PM sticks with his ever-balancing approach and that Freeland can stick up for farmers, stave off ill-informed urban attacks on farming, and help farmers build the growth economy the government still sounds committed to.

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