Private meetings not OK when accepting public money

A public-facing organization like Dairy Farmers of Canada, receiving such substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars, should be holding its annual meetings in public, says Glacier FarmMedia Ottawa correspondent D.C. Fraser

Canada’s dairy industry continues to receive financial and moral support from taxpayers and consumers, but producers should recognize the role transparency plays in ensuring that relationship remains healthy.

The organization that represents Canadian dairy farmers, set to receive nearly two billion dollars in trade-compensatory payments from Canadian taxpayers, recently held its 2021 annual general policy meeting behind closed doors.

Agriculture minister Marie Claude Bibeau was invited to attend the virtual event, closed to the public and media by organizers.

During her keynote speech to the Dairy Farmers of Canada meeting Bibeau announced 5,054 Canadian dairy farmers have already received their payments, totalling $267.1 million, under the second year of the Dairy Direct Payments Program, from the federal government.

Those payments are compensation for the government negotiating away a share of the domestic dairy market as part of recent trade negotiations.

Dairy farmers are receiving $1.4 billion in direct payments over the next three years, part of a $1.75 billion compensation package.

The owner of a farm with 80 dairy cows will be awarded compensation in the form of a direct payment of about $38,000 each of those years.

Bibeau’s announcement was made public by the federal government through a news release.

More money is expected to be coming to dairy farmers, too. They have been promised compensation from the new-NAFTA deal by the Liberal government.

A public-facing organization like DFC, receiving such substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars, should be holding its annual meetings in public.

It’s at those meetings where dairy farmers undertake strategic planning and tackle some of the biggest issues facing producers.

Dairy farmers can expect — and make a strong argument for — receiving that money because of the losses they have experienced from recent trade deals.

But while supply management is a sacred cow of Canadian public policy, it can still be debated.

Just a few years ago, there was a country-wide debate on the future of supply management.

During his failed bid to win the Conservative party leadership, Maxime Bernier ran on the back of eliminating supply-management, showing there is appetite for debate on the subject, at least within some political circles. Bernier gained 49 percent of the votes in that race.

Put another way, Canada was within a few thousand votes of having its official opposition party led by someone who opposes supply management, and wants to abolish it.

Imagine the policy meeting being held in private under those circumstances.

Dairy farming in Canada is a function of public policy and public policy is a matter of public debate.

During the 2020 policy conference held by the DFC, Bibeau told the audience supply management was a “social contract” that needs protecting.

She didn’t say what, or who, it needed protecting from — since Bernier’s failed attempt, taking on supply management isn’t politically in vogue — but despite supply management’s continued sacred standing, dairy is under attack.

Just about any time Bibeau posts about the dairy industry on social media, including her post about her speech at the DFC policy meeting this year, she is asked by people why the government continues to prop up a commodity no longer included in Canada’s Food Guide.

Discontent is out there, despite the widespread support for the dairy industry.

More and more consumers are migrating away from dairy and toward alternatives.

Dairy Farmers of Canada is regularly engaging in public campaigns and promoting the industry. Sealing . off its policy conference to the public, as it did this year, runs counter to those efforts.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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