Farm groups unprepared for new government

Quick, who is the federal agriculture critic for the NDP? What about the Liberals? Who is their ag critic?

Most of us in the West have no idea. Prominent Liberals Ralph Goodale and Wayne Easter are remembered by the agriculture community for their past endeavours in the agricultural portfolio, but neither is taking a lead role at this juncture.

The results of the upcoming federal election are too close to call. Polls suggest a minority government of some sort. Neither of the present opposition parties is likely to play ball for long to keep the Conservatives in power.

However, co-operation between the Liberals and NDP is conceivable.

A lot can happen between now and the fall, but the Harper government’s continuance is far from assured. The agriculture lobby, particularly in the West, has done little to prepare for a possible change.

Many farm organizations in the West unabashedly support the Conservatives. In fact, any farm group that comes out with even a modest admonition risks being treated as an outsider. This is a government with a thin skin to any sort of criticism.

Most prairie farmers could not envision ever voting for anyone other than the Conservatives. While this is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Liberals and NDP have been ignored, it could prove to be a tactical error.

This lack of engagement with the opposition has given the parties little reason to pay much attention to prairie agriculture. Rural Ontario and Quebec matters because votes there are up for grabs. Here in the West, there’s no payoff for them spending time or energy to come up with a viable platform. No matter what they do, the voting pattern in rural areas is unlikely to change appreciably.

We risk ending up with a government that knows little about prairie agriculture and has little vested interest in reaching out to farmers. If that scenario plays out, we as farmers can take some of the blame.

At the recent meeting of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, prime minister Stephen Harper made an appearance to answer pre-determined questions delivered by SARM president Ray Orb. No opportunity was afforded during the PM’s entire Saskatoon visit for reporters or farmers to ask questions. It was all carefully stage managed.

Certainly, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz is accessible and approachable, so Harper can perhaps be forgiven for trying to avoid controversy.

Even with his approach, the Toronto media tried to make an issue out of him suggesting that guns offer some sense of security to rural people who live far from police protection.

SARM was no doubt delighted to have the prime minister attend despite the rules of engagement. However, it would serve the interests of agriculture to also have opposition leaders Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair make appearances at prominent agriculture events. They might even agree to a real question and answer session.

Trudeau seems to be largely image and sex appeal with precious little policy substance. Mulcair seems bright and articulate, but his policies are too left-wing for most farmers. Impressions aside, we need to know these men better and they need to know what makes us tick. Trudeau could easily be the next prime minister in a government propped up by Mulcair’s NDP.

And while minority governments are often short-lived, they can become majority governments quite quickly.

By then, it will be a little late to be making introductions and building bridges.

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