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New political reality for cattle industry

…lobbying strategy will have to start over  

The surprise election of an NDP government in Alberta has caused considerable apprehension in the cattle industry – and that’s putting it mildly. Although there have been a few bumps there has been a cozy relationship between the industry and the former PC party ruling dynasty. But all that came to an abrupt end with the recent election and it will be a brave new world for virtually all agriculture organizations in the province as none expected to have to deal with an NDP government. To make the political situation more difficult, most rural and small town ridings returned opposition Wildrose Party MLAs. That will no doubt be noted by the new NDP political strategy braintrust as they contemplate the mandate of a new agriculture Minister and establish agriculture and rural development policy priorities. At the least the election result will affect their attitude towards the ag sector as there will be few if any new NDP MLAs that will carry the torch for agriculture. That could mean either political animosity or benign neglect towards the industry and the countryside – neither attitude would be helpful.

One thing for sure, for all but one farm organization, the result puts them on an equal footing – none have any significant political connections into the new government. The exception is the National Farmers Union (NFU) who are long time soul mates of the NDP across the country. I expect when the new NDP Ag Minister ponders who to talk to first it will be the NFU that comes to mind. There is some irony in the NFU’s new favourable political status as they were long deemed to be too small, too leftish and irrelevant by the former PC government and much of the Alberta farm organizations’ establishment. The NFU does tend to focus more on national ag issues which are beyond the scope of a provincial Minister of Agriculture. But I expect they will now be in an excellent position to exert influence on their long time NDP pals on any issue. One issue that the NFU is expected to bring up with the new NDP Ag Minister is the creation of a mandatory universal provincial ag industry checkoff similar to what exists in Ontario and Quebec. The NFU is one of the financial beneficiaries of that checkoff in Ontario.  That would bring the entire checkoff issue, including any new type of cattle levy, into a whole new range of discussion and political posturing. I expect that both the Alberta Beef Producers and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association will need to re-evaluate their respective checkoff strategies as neither has an advantage with the new government. They may even have to actually cooperate in order to mitigate some new and different checkoff process that may be contemplated for the ag industry.

Another issue that is set in NDP stone is the implementation of mandatory farm worker rights – that being OHS and WCB regulations and programs. Its part of NDP policy and has been vigorously demanded by their union allies. History shows that one of the first legislative changes newly-elected NDP governments make is to dramatically alter provincial labour laws to favour workers. The industry can expect that farm worker rights will be central to any new NDP labour legislation – Alberta is the last province not to have such legislation.  The ag industry would be wise to admit defeat on this issue and not aggravate a new NDP administration with stubborn resistance. Better to work with the new government on this inevitable change rather than suffer their displeasure and exasperation. One group that will feel more secure with the new government are poultry, egg and dairy producers. The NDP are long-time and steadfast supporters of supply management at the provincial and national level and would forcefully oppose any weakening of the system by the federal Conservative government. The former PC government were lukewarm supporters of supply management, and were long-time foes of the now defunct Canadian Wheat Board.

But there is an underlying worry that a new highly urban-focused NDP government will see some politically correct notions being pushed onto commercial agriculture. Notwithstanding the farm worker rights matter, which is a human right; one fears that trendy urban perceptions on pesticide use, water allocation, land use, animal welfare, organic agriculture might be imposed on the ag industry. Hopefully science and common sense will prevail. On the other hand one does hope that with a radically new government that some structural changes can be made which will develop better and more agricultural production, particularly with irrigation development, range rehabilitation and new ecological goods and services programs.

One reality is that the new NDP government does not owe a political debt to the ag sector or rural voters as a result of the recent election outcome. One hopes that this will not be held against the industry, but instead provide an opportunity to start with a clean slate. Cattle organizations will be gearing up their lobby machines to pursue their issues with the new government, but they would do well to tread carefully as with this new government it will not be business as usual. On the other hand, we can only hope that the new government will recognize that agriculture and food production is the second largest sector of the Alberta economy and deserves support. Such favour would go a long way to creating good will with the industry and rural voters.

Finally one note of transparency, your humble writer was well acquainted with former NDP leader and MLA the late Grant Notley, the father of our new Premier. I had the honour of meeting him several times whilst I was ranching just across the BC border from his old Spirit River-Fairview riding. He was one of those few politicians that could inspire trust and hope and he spoke honestly. He was universally admired. One hopes that the newly elected NDP government will rule with his guiding spirit and principles.

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