Former federal agriculture minister Andy Mitchell offered advice for those who intend to lobby current and future ministers: quality trumps volume, expertise trumps politics and relationships trump rhetoric.
Speaking during a webinar organized by the Agri-Food Innovation Council, Mitchell said farm organization representatives should be prepared for the meeting, understand what’s possible and listen as well as talk.
“Make sure that the minister is clear about what you’re asking,” he said.
Mitchell, who was the Liberal agriculture minister from 2004-06, and former Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Bob Friesen both said that collaboration rather than confrontation was the best approach.
Friesen was CFA president from 1999 through 2008 and now works on several files for the organization.
“The government isn’t there for us to fight,” he said.
He offered several examples of how CFA and Mitchell worked together during tumultuous trade talks at that time. He said Mitchell likely lost an election because he was too busy working on farmers’ behalf in Hong Kong.
But the premise of the webinar was to ask whether there are too many farm organizations in Canada and whether the farm voice is fractured. The Agri-Food Innovation Council’s Serge Buy said there are 1,200 registered agricultural lobbyists.
Mitchell said it can be a problem if too many voices are trying to be heard but agriculture is such a complex industry, operating from primary production through processing and distribution, that isn’t surprising.
“Umbrella organizations play a critical role from the minister’s perspective,” he said. “It’s critical that the industry itself create processes to build industry consensus.”
While industry won’t find common ground on all issues Mitchell said they can come with a cohesive message on at least some of them.
Friesen said the number of organizations doesn’t mean that the industry is divided. Sector or commodity specific groups are needed to speak for particular dynamics.
“When it comes to a policy issue that transcends that specific commodity of course there needs to be collaboration” he said.
He said when he was CFA president the policy was not to speak for a specific commodity unless that commodity endorsed it.
There was excellent co-operation among farm organizations at various times and he noted that current CFA president Mary Robinson does a great job at reaching out to non-members.
Both Friesen and Mitchell noted the need to prioritize requests especially when it comes to money. The agriculture minister is only one voice at the cabinet table and all are looking for funding.