Urban-rural divide called threat to farmer voice

A former NFU executive director says farmers find themselves caught between the progressive and populist movements

MOOSE JAW, Sask. — A wider urban-rural divide is squeezing farmers between progressive and populist movements, says a public policy expert, and that could result in a diminished farm voice at the political table.

Kevin Wipf, a former National Farmers Union executive director who now works with Alberta’s justice department, told the recent Farming For Profit? conference in Moose Jaw that the progressive front is focused on environmental action and urban-based values. Urban populations are also becoming more diverse.

On the populist side, trade issues, opposition to carbon tax and other right-wing expressions dominate. Wipf said this is happening throughout North America.

Combine these with a shift in political power to urban centres because of population and farmers may have a tough time finding their voice in a debate, Wipf said.

“It’s a divide in values as much as it is political support,” he said in an interview.

“A lot of the issues around the environment and that kind of thing are really captured more by urban interests.”

But he said recent political events in Canada, such as the election of Doug Ford in Ontario, offer an interesting contrast.

“If you look ahead to the next two and three years, there is actually an emerging centre-right power bloc in Canada, with an American president (who is also to the political right),” he said. “What does that mean for farming policy going forward?”

Wipf said he expected the farm community would be more united after the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the commodity commissions remain anchored provincially and with continuing ideological divides in some cases.

“There’s still a very pluralistic farm policy community there,” he said. “All of the different commodities have different dependencies on trade, different types of things they’re trying to do with production.”

Canadian Federation of Agriculture vice-president Norm Hall said that division exists to a point.

“A lot of that division continues to be around three letters, CWB, even though it’s been gone for how many years?” he said. “But when it came down to transportation and the taxation piece I’ve never seen western Canadian agriculture get so in tune with each other and we were able to make a difference.”

Wipf said farmers must pay attention to politics and policy as Canadians head into future elections, particularly Alberta, where right-wing Jason Kenney is a force.

The election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump were both reactions to the previous regimes and both have affected farmers negatively in different ways, he added.

Trump’s protectionist trade stance has created a lot of uncertainty for farmers, and Trudeau hasn’t managed to sell his carbon tax to farm voters. Wipf said even a farmer in favour of a carbon tax would have a difficult time understanding exactly how the policy works because the government hasn’t done a good job of adequately articulating it.

The unpredictability south of the border is a challenge, but everyone has to understand that Trump is talking to his base electorate, Wipf said.

“All politics is local. The way the public is getting riled up over each thing … we’re becoming distracted,” he said. “He’s playing a political game and he’s playing it effectively, some would say.”

Wipf added that as the number of farmers diminished that might actually make it easier for them to organize. Dairy Farmers of Canada is a good example of an organization that represents a smaller number but is highly effective, he said.

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