Supply management matters, but not in the way that its opponents or supporters probably want

Both internationally and domestically, supply management is at the centre of toxic, destructive politics

I’m sure supply management supporters and beneficiaries would most like to be ignored, to be able to run their farms and closed industrial system without anybody else thinking about it. They just want to farm.

And I’m sure most supply management opponents would also like it to be a minor matter, an irritant but not something that challenges or threatens the bustling, export-oriented free market farming industries that dominate Western Canada. They just want SM to stay out of their way.

But the opposite is the case today, with supply management being arguably the most significant impediment to Canada being able to renew the crucial NAFTA free trade deal with the United States, and an issue that now threatens to gouge crucial support out of the Conservative party and set the right fighting with itself for years.

Yesterday Maxime Bernier threw a bomb into the present Conservative party convention by announcing in Ottawa, while his colleagues were trying to be super-positive in Halifax, that he was leaving to form his own party. He described the present Conservative party under likeable leader Andrew Scheer as “too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed.”

He started the slow burn that led to this explosion more than a week ago, with a series of tweets attacking the promotion of diversity and multiculturalism, and that has gained most attention. But to me it seemed pretty clear that supply management is a bigger outrage to him, and probably seems to him a more profound sin against the free market principles he actually seems to believe in. Certainly, supply management has occupied a lot more of his time and attention in the last few years than multiculturalism.

So it was yesterday as well. He continued his attacks against supply management and the Conservative party’s willingness to support the continuation of a system that deliberately (and honestly) works as an anti-open market force. How can a Conservative party support such a thing?

That idea has always struck me as well. I understand why the Liberal party would support supply management. The Liberal party’s members tend to believe that some government involvement in moulding industries can be constructive. The regulatory environment that creates the Canadian dairy and other supply management systems can be seen to be part of that. The New Democratic Party has no problem with government intervention in the economy. Generally its members want more.

But Conservatives are split between the old brokerage party of John A. Macdonald and heirs and the radical reformers from the Reform Party and successors, and it’s a deep divide only papered-over when the party is successful. (The Harper decade.) John A’s party would have no problem making provision for supply management. Some of the anti-government idealists of the Reform days have trouble swallowing compromises.

Harper’s governments generally had the free-market tone of the Reform days, and it made sense that the Canadian Wheat Board was killed when Harper et al were in charge. What I could never understand was how they could preach free market purity when it came to killing the CWB, in defiance of the wishes of most Prairie farmers, then turn around and support supply management, which is much more a rejection of free market principles. I’d always ask Conservative politicians about this seeming contradiction, and never heard a convincing explanation. (Obviously, it just seems a willingness to abandon principle in order to preserve votes in Ontario and Quebec and have a better chance of winning elections, but that’s not something most politicians can admit.)

So this is an old festering sore within the conservative community that Bernier is aggressively poking, and the pain might run deeper than many are now expecting. I can’t see the supply management issue fading any time soon, especially with all the attention it has received during the NAFTA imbroglio.

In fact, while writing this a tweet popped up on my screen. It was from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which describes itself as “Canada’s leading independent, nationally focused think tank based in Ottawa. We exist to make poor public policy unacceptable in the nation’s capital.”

What were they tweeting about early Friday morning?

“Canadian interests at home and abroad are damaged by maintaining our antiquated and illogical system for controlling the price of milk, cheese and eggs. It’s time to kill supply management . . . ”

Bernier is being written-off as Quixotic by his former Conservative friends, as a one-man narcissism parade, but I’m guessing there’s a much deeper well of support for what he represents than opponents of left and (especially) right will want to admit, so I can’t see him going away any time soon.

And much to the chagrin of supply management supporters and opponents, he’ll probably keep the SM issue in the public’s face for years to come.


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