New Conservative leader’s ag policy rather thin

If and when new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole becomes prime minister of Canada, what can we expect for agriculture policy?

To answer that question, O’Toole’s agriculture policy platform is posted on his website and has been widely publicized. Unfortunately, it raises almost as many questions as it answers.

His pledge to end the carbon tax that drives up farm input costs is perhaps the most tangible and expected pledge, but this is long-standing Conservative policy and therefore not a surprise.

Many of O’Toole’s other promises sound good, but end up being little more than platitudes since they lack any roadmap for implementation. For instance, he promises to open up new markets for livestock, grain and oilseed producers in free trade negotiations. Saying this is easy; doing it is not.

O’Toole notes that as parliamentary secretary for trade in the previous Conservative government, he worked closely with farm families and their associations to conclude the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and European Union. By most analysis CETA has been a bust when it comes to improving access for Canadian agricultural products such as beef.

On the subject of farm safety net programs, O’Toole’s promise is to make them “predictable, bankable and manageable.”

Worthy objectives, but what does it really mean? It was a Conservative government that cut AgriStability support levels. Would a new Conservative government reverse the cuts and if so how would they get all the provinces to agree to the substantial increase in funding required?

O’Toole promises to implement a plan to tackle rural crime and ensure farm families feel safe. Again there are no specifics. It’s the same with his pledge on “working with community stakeholders in order to develop policies facilitating the transfer of family farms from parents to their children.”

Somehow the wisdom for how to accomplish these objectives will miraculously come to him after his government is elected.

In fairness, there are some more specific actions in his platform. He promises to amend existing laws “to allow livestock owners to use local slaughterhouses, reducing both the stress to the animals and the production of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from transportation to distant facilities.”

Regulations in many cases need to be revamped so that local abattoirs can flourish, but this is complicated and often falls under provincial jurisdiction.

Remember the term ALUS, which stands for alternative land use systems? It’s a program to provide incentives to farmers for protecting wetlands, sequestering carbon and preserving wildlife habitat.

O’Toole is promising to launch an ALUS pilot project “to examine positive incentives for environmental stewardship by farmers.” There have already been pilots in Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. It doesn’t need to be studied more. It needs to be implemented.

When you boil it all down, the only pledge that’s tangible and would probably be acted upon immediately by a Conservative government is the elimination of the carbon tax. The other promises and platitudes aren’t much different than what you might hear from the Trudeau Liberals.

The next election could be mere months away if the Liberal minority government loses a confidence motion. Alternatively, the election could be years from now. O’Toole could be the next prime minister, but a Conservative win is far from guaranteed.

At least O’Toole didn’t forget about agriculture when he put his platform together. And if he does form government someday, he’ll have a strong contingent of MPs with strong agricultural backgrounds. That’s really lacking within the current administration.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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