By Andrew Coyne, Postmedia News June 22, 2012
Canada's supply management system — which enriches a small number of farms at the expense of consumers rich and poor — has been uncriticized by virtually every Canadian politician, writes Andrew Coyne.Photograph by: Ian Smith , Vancouver SunThere are issues that are more important than supply management. There are parties that have more support than the Liberal party, and there are people with a higher profile than Martha Hall Findlay. How is it, then, that an academic paper by a former Liberal MP on an issue that remains obscure to most Canadians has raised such a fuss? I can think of a few reasons.
One is the issue itself — the system of supply quotas that has governed dairy, poultry and egg production across Canada for the last four decades. It is timely, with the announcement that Canada will be joining negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a nascent free-trade bloc the government is anxious Canada should be part of, admission to which was until now conditional on the elimination of supply management. It may still be: the government has not been forthcoming on what terms it has accepted, or would in future.
If the government were of a mind to get rid of supply management — it swears it is not — that is perhaps the only basis on which it could: our trading partners made us do it. Certainly it would not dream of doing so otherwise. Such is the power of the supply management lobby, especially dairy, that a suffocating consensus has settled over the issue, of a kind rarely seen in a democracy. Consensus is not even the word. Every party strives to outdo the others in the fulsomeness of its support. And not just every party: every member of every party, in every province and at every level of government. It's quite creepy.
Yet virtually every economist or policy analyst of note agrees that supply management is a disgrace. The primary effect of the quotas — the intended effect — is to drive up the price of these foods, staples of most Canadians' diets, to two and three times the market price. The burden of these extraordinary price differentials, of course, fall most heavily on the poor, a fact that ought to trouble self-styled "progressives" but evidently doesn't.
But it isn't only consumers who pay. Since the quotas are tradable, the premium over market prices gets capitalized into the value of the quota. The right to a cow's worth of milk production, for example, runs to about $28,000, meaning a farmer looking to get into the industry faces an initial outlay, for the typical 60-cow farm, in excess of $1.5 million — just for the quota, never mind the cows, the barn and the rest.
All this we do to ourselves, quite apart from the annoyance it causes our prospective trade partners, and the risk this represents to our export-oriented sectors. Indeed, the system isn't even serving the interests of dairy farmers, rightly considered. While they remain confined to the domestic market, Australia, New Zealand and other dairy exporters are catering to the expanding middle class in fast-growing emerging markets.
So for Hall Findlay to come out against it is noteworthy in itself. Though not currently an MP — she's an executive fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Policy — she's a well-regarded figure in the Liberal party who is widely expected to run for party leader. Quite on her own, she has made it thinkable for an elected politician to get on the wrong side of the dairy lobby. Her paper makes a particular contribution in this regard, pointing out how few dairy farms there really are: fewer than 13,000 across the country, a force (more than 300 farms) in just 13 ridings.
That Hall Findlay may be a candidate for leader is the second reason her intervention has had such impact. This is not, conventionally, how one kicks off a leadership bid — by taking firm hold of what is considered one of the deadliest "third rails" in Canadian politics. Nor can it be dismissed as a mere tactic: the paper is deeply researched, and obviously sincerely held. One suspects this will not be the last such controversial stand she will take, but rather signals her intent to set out a sharply different vision for her party.
That's good for her, and better for the party. It is exactly the kind of bold break with the status quo the Liberal party needs to make. Certainly it is the kind of debate it needs to have. For that matter, it is the kind of debate, the kind of politics, we all need, which is perhaps the greatest import of Hall Findlay's initiative.
We have grown used to a politics in which no one ever says or does anything the least bit risky, and no one ever tells the truth unless by accident. Our politics has become, quite literally, a fantasy world, and nowhere more so than with regard to supply management. The unwillingness until now of anyone, literally anyone, to speak out against such a clearly indefensible policy speaks of a deeply entrenched culture of falseness and opportunism.
While far from the most pressing issue before the nation, the divide between experts and evidence, on the one hand, and the political class, on the other, gives it unusual symbolic weight. Indeed, it can serve as a kind of litmus test, a benchmark of political seriousness. If you cannot bring yourself to say it is wrong to make poor families pay three times the market price of milk to prop up a handful of wealthy farmers, you are not in the business of serious politics.
In India, cows literally are sacred.
In Canada, "cows" of this political variety are also sacred, in a different way.
To be publicly willing, diligent and courageous enough to offer to "slay" such a political cow as 'supply management' is analogous to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac to comply with God's directive.
A political career, or at least one in the incubator, is both literally and figuratively, put 'on the line'.
There is a kind of vigour, too, in Hall Findlay's defence when she appeared on CBC's Power and Politics just this week to debate a representative of Canada's dairy farmers.
Backyard barbecues, for the purpose of generating support for a potential leadership candidate, are relatively easy, not too costly, especially if one can find willing "hosts" to fund those events, and perhaps somewhat effective. However, knowing how to "schmooze" over a hunk of beef and a Molson's Canadian, or even a Belgian Stella Artois, is not even comparable to "kindergarten" for the kind of pressure the next Liberal leader will face.
Policy, researched policy positions, specifically articulated by candidates who have committed to and learned the file, and especially those positions that are sure to garner both heat and light is at least equivalent to undergraduate graduation, if successfully pulled off. Positioning a leadership candidacy, and potentially a national political party's fortunes on a policy that threatens to deconstruct the "favourable" yet highly parochial position of dairy farmers, for example, is something Martha Hall Findlay can claim to be at least attempting.
Should she be able to be as well informed, based on thorough research, and as articulate on other policy holes in the swiss cheese of Canadian politics under Harper and his gang, on issues like the environment, or on eliminating poverty, or on a health care policy that, using reliable data on both demographics and innovation, foresees at least a decade out, or on our national need for enlightenment in foreign policy and foreign aid, Ms Hall Findlay could become a highly credible and serious candidate, with the gravitas and potentially the style and 'charisma' ( a word too often reserved exclusively for male candidates) that could see itself on red Liberal posters and ads in the 2015 election.
For more on her somewhat unequivocal thoughts on the future of the Liberal Party, her paper on the subject, "Not Right, Not Left but Forward can be found here: http://www.irpp.org/po/archive/mar12/findlay.pdf
She is also Chair of the 2012 Couchiching Conference as noted in this intro from that site;
Chair, 2012 Summer Conference
Martha Hall Findlay is the Chair of the 2012 Couchiching Summer Conference. She is a former Member of Parliament, and held several senior shadow Cabinet positions, including that of Associate Finance; Transport, Infrastructure and Communities; Public Works and International Trade. In 2006, Martha was a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and her “Big Red Bus” campaign was highly praised for substance and intelligence. Before politics, she worked extensively as a lawyer, senior executive, and successful entrepreneur both in Canada and internationally. Martha is now an Executive Fellow at the school of public policy at the University of Calgary.