More flexibility urged for next ag policy round

Doug Hedley, assistant deputy minister of farm financial programs from 2001-04, says AgriRecovery is the right program to use during this year’s widespread drought.  |  Brian Cross photo

Former assistant deputy agriculture minister says farm programs must be designed differently because world has changed

Rising east-west tensions could erode the foundation of Canada’s agricultural policy framework even as governments negotiate the next one, says a former federal civil servant.

Douglas Hedley, in a paper commissioned by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, said the stability established through common policies 20 years ago is now shaky. He helped develop the original Agricultural Policy Framework signed in 2001.

The relationship between the federal and provincial governments, particularly in the West, is not as good as it was then, he said.

As policy-makers look to the end of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership in 2023 they have to consider how things have changed and make the next framework more flexible, he said. It has to be equitable while recognizing regional differences.

“You can’t put in place a five-year program in the way we have done before,” he said in an interview. “We have to be far more nimble. Once you set the programs, things like the CAP in place, it becomes much more difficult to be nimble. How do we go about it?”

The politics between Ottawa and some provinces is part of the problem. One example is Alberta’s willingness to change its crop insurance funding formula but not agree to full AgriStability changes.

Hedley said one of the federal government’s unwritten tasks is to make Confederation work, so it bears responsibility to reverse the discord.

“It’s not a matter of caving to provincial demands, it’s a matter of building a consensus of where Canada as a country has to go. That took a lot of years to get to where we did in Whitehorse and the program that emerged for the following five years.”

Hedley was assistant deputy minister of farm financial programs from 2001-04. He said the road toward a federal-provincial policy wasn’t exactly smooth.

The process of ending regional subsidies began in 1989 under Conservative agriculture minister Don Mazankowski, with the Farm Income Protection Act (FIPA) in 1990, and continued through the 1995 budget under Liberal minister Ralph Goodale and his successor Lyle Vanclief.

The 1995 budget saw the end of legacy subsidies such as Feed Freight Assistance for the West, while under Vanclief the first agriculture policy framework was finally signed.

Since then the world has changed, Hedley said. The World Trade Organization no longer offers the protections it once did, climate change has become a central focus and science and technology have moved the industry far beyond what it was.

Hedley said two things governments could do quickly and easily would be to address climate change with respect to agriculture and solidify a place in the international research realm.

As far as climate change policies, he said this should be done by the national government.

“The reason I say this is because somewhere along the line a province is going to do something that the U.S. will then turn around and use (a mechanism) to come after Canada,” he said.

But he said it isn’t yet clear whether Ottawa’s policies are useful for agriculture.

“We need to, from an ag and food perspective, design what is good for the sector to meet the kind of requirements,” he said. “That implies to me a national level view, rather than a province by province view, which is what the federal government is now pursuing.”

Hedley questioned whether Canada is putting enough effort into being part of the international research work done on new technologies such as gene editing or RNA research to deal with diseases like African swine fever.

“When you get beyond that, there’s not many solutions out there. So, to me, we have to repair or build a set of policy processes that can be nimble, can react fairly quickly, because we’re facing a series of problems or potential problems that are unhedgeable. That really is the issue,” he said.

He also said Canada will need a safety net program to deal with normal risks, but also a plan to deal with sudden risks.

How to develop these as the concepts of equality built during the 1990s and 2000s go astray is the question, he said.

He said using AgriRecovery, essentially an ad hoc program, is the right move during the widespread drought this year. The FIPA requires existing programs to be used first.

“Clause 12 is the ad hoc clause (and) is clearly the place that it’s going to have to come from, but it has to be seen as equitable and not destructive of the existing programs,” Hedley said. “That’s the difficulty.”

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