Conservative MPs in hot seat over views on supply management

The United States will demand access to Canada’s dairy in-dustry during a pending renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier told delegates at the annual Manning Centre conference in Ottawa Feb. 24.

“And that’s a good thing,” Bernier told his fellow leadership candidates, insisting 90 percent of Canadian farmers are export dependent.

The Manning Centre conference is an annual gathering of key Conservative leaders and grassroots members who spend a weekend networking and brainstorming. The conference is organized by former Reform party leader Preston Manning.

The Quebec MP, whose riding is home to one of the highest concentrations of dairy farmers in the country, has promised to get rid of Canada’s “cartel” supply management system if elected. Bernier has proposed a multi-year phase-out of the system similar to the process undertaken by Australia and New Zealand.

The Australian government recently approved a $430-million bailout package for dairy farmers struggling thanks to a major slump in global milk prices. Bernier told reporters at Manning he would “absolutely not” approve a similar bailout package.

Bernier has repeatedly said the system should be phased out to benefit the Canadian consumer, arguing its elimination would cut the cost of dairy products in half, triggering noticeable applause.

Figures from Dairy Farmer of Canada show Canadian milk prices average around $1.48 per litre, which is nearly 20 cents less than in New Zealand ($1.65 per litre). When asked, Bernier referenced consumer prices in the United States, telling reporters he wants Canadian consumers to see similar pricing north of the border.

“Let’s work for Canadian consumers. How come we’re Conservatives? We believe in free markets. How come we cannot have a free market under supply management? Just abolish that and we’ll have more freedom.”

Bernier’s vow to end supply management has angered several of his colleagues, including former Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

“Max, we’re buddies and we’ve been friends for a long time. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t understand a negotiation tactic when you decide you’re going to give up something before you even sit at the table, and that’s what you’re doing on supply management,” Raitt said. “You’re offering them up on a silver platter.”

Bernier isn’t the only the Conservative willing to put supply management on the NAFTA renegotiation table.

Kevin O’Leary, whose position on the system remains opaque, didn’t rule it out.

“Here’s how you negotiate it. You put everything out on the table as it started.”

Supply management could be used as a “leverage point,” he added.

He said concessions would be made only if Canada got something back in return. The quota is valued at $30 billion, he insisted.

“At the end of the day, for us to even consider that, we need to receive that back in value. You don’t just give it up.”

O’Leary did not say whether he would provide support or compensation to farmers if those gains were made outside of agriculture.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney, former Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole and Ontario MP Michael Chong have all said they support supply management.

O’Toole was part of the trade negotiations between Canada and the European Union, in which Canadian officials granted European cheese-makers market access for 17,700 tones of cheese. Ottawa has pledged $350 million in innovation funding to help the sector adjust.

The former parliamentary secretary for international trade said the Conservatives were willing to compensate farmers if they were hurt by the concessions.

“We worked with industry,” he said.“We’re the party of agriculture, we’re the party of rural Canada. The fact that we wouldn’t want to work with them troubles me.”

O’Toole said Ottawa should ask former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for guidance on how to defend the system in NAFTA renegotiations.

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