Supply management makes return to the political arena

Supply management is back in the headlines.

It started Aug. 23, when Quebec MP Maxime Bernier hastily called a news conference in Ottawa. In an explosive exit, Bernier said he was quitting the party and attacked Conservative officials for their unwillingness to debate sacred cows, such as supply management.

Bernier ran for leader of the Conservative party in 2017, where he vowed to dismantle Canada’s quota system for dairy, eggs and poultry if elected leader and eventually prime minister.

The idea was popular with many Conservatives, notably members in Western Canada, where supply management — particularly in dairy — is not as prominent. (Most of Canada’s dairy producers are in Quebec and Ontario.)

Bernier’s news conference came the same day Conservative party members were gathering in Halifax for a policy convention, where supply management had the potential to be on the agenda.

Ahead of the convention, Alberta delegates had put forward a motion that called for the end of supply management.

It echoed the position put forward by Bernier in the leadership convention. The resolution was the last one on the list to be considered at the breakout session focusing on economic development and trade on the afternoon of Aug. 24.

Many Alberta delegates said they had travelled to Halifax to specifically address the issue of supply management.

They didn’t get the chance. Time for debate ran out before all the resolutions were discussed after the session started half an hour late.

Efforts to move the resolution up the list or speed up the discussion process failed. The resolution died and could not move forward.

The results infuriated many Conservative delegates — many of whom supported Bernier in the last leadership race. Party insistence of unity following the Bernier blow appeared frayed as angry delegates accused party leadership of preventing the item from being debated.

The divisions within the Conservative party on the supply management file come at the same time as NAFTA divisions between Canada and the United States continue.

On Aug. 27, President Donald Trump announced from the Oval Office that a bilateral trade deal had been reached between the United States and Mexico.

Bilateral discussions between Canada and the U.S., he said, would start immediately. He also said he planned to terminate NAFTA.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was in Europe for a series of bilateral meetings, has cut her trip short and is headed to Washington.

A major hurdle in Canada and the U.S.’s NAFTA negotiations is dairy access. The U.S. has demanded that Canada eliminate its entire supply management system within a decade.

Canada has said repeatedly that demand is a non-starter. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised publicly he will protect Canada’s supply management system.

That won’t be easy. Canadian negotiators are under the gun. Trump is clearly playing hardball. On Aug. 27, he again threatened to impose tariffs on Canadian automobile exports if a NAFTA deal isn’t reached.

Experts have said those tariffs, if imposed, would send Ontario into a recession.

The Berniers of the world want Canada to offer up supply management at the NAFTA negotiation.

Others argue there’s no guarantee that will satiate the U.S. because the Trump administration has a history of simply demanding more.

Then there’s the political calculations to be made. Quebec is in the middle of a provincial election, where supply management has deep political roots.

Giving up on supply management a year out from a federal election — one that will, most likely, largely be decided in Quebec — is a huge political sacrifice.

Trudeau would likely want to avoid that outcome if possible, as would every Liberal MP who has come out repeatedly insisting the system will be protected.

One thing is certain: don’t expect supply management to disappear from the political headlines any time soon.

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