Ottawa Citizen - - NP - AN­DREW COYNE

How did sup­ply man­age­ment, of all things, come to be at the cen­tre of ev­ery­thing?

The pol­icy, un­der which farm­ers in a num­ber of sec­tors — milk, cheese, eggs, poul­try — are or­ga­nized into govern­ment-approved price­fix­ing rings, en­forced by a com­plex sys­tem of quo­tas and pro­tected by pro­hib­i­tive tar­iffs on imports of the same goods, has been in place since the early 1970s. It af­fects fewer than 15,000 farm­ers na­tion­wide, who be­tween them ac­count for less than one per cent of Canada’s GDP.

Yet it has some­how be­come the cen­tral is­sue not only of our do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, but of in­ter­na­tional trade talks. It was the pre­text for Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to im­pose tar­iffs on imports of alu­minum and steel, and is his most-cited griev­ance with Cana­dian trade pol­icy. As such, it has be­come the ral­ly­ing cry of preen­ing po­lit­i­cal pa­tri­ots, each of the par­ties seek­ing to outdo the oth­ers in de­fence of a pol­icy whose avowed pur­pose, let us re­mem­ber, is to make ba­sic food items more ex­pen­sive for Cana­di­ans.

It has also be­come a source of deep di­vi­sion within the Con­ser­va­tive Party. It was al­ready, of course, thanks to last year’s lead­er­ship race, in which Maxime Bernier made its elim­i­na­tion the cen­tral plank in his cam­paign, as An­drew Scheer made its re­ten­tion the key to his. In­deed, Scheer’s nar­row vic­tory was directly at­trib­ut­able to the votes of thou­sands of Que­bec dairy farm­ers, who took out party mem­ber­ships for the sole pur­pose of en­sur­ing Bernier’s de­feat. It is even pos­si­ble the Scheer cam­paign en­cour­aged them in this en­deav­our.

But with the is­sue back in the news thanks to Trump; with the re­vival of Con­ser­va­tive hopes, the Bloc Québé­cois be­ing in such dis­ar­ray, of win­ning seats in ru­ral Que­bec; with Bernier’s de­ci­sion to stoke the still-sim­mer­ing con­tro­versy in a chap­ter of his re­cently un­pub­lished book; and with the Lib­er­als tak­ing ev­ery chance to re­mind Cana­di­ans, Que­be­cers in par­tic­u­lar, of Bernier’s heresy — now cou­pled with the in­flam­ma­tory charge that he was do­ing Trump’s bid­ding — the air was heavy with ex­plo­sive po­ten­tial.

Scheer’s de­ci­sion to fire Bernier as the party’s in­no­va­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment critic, as abrupt as it seemed Tues­day night, was there­fore prob­a­bly fore­see­able, even with­out the “provo­ca­tion” of Bernier hav­ing posted the of­fend­ing chap­ter on his web­site.

And yet it is all so un­nec­es­sary. To be sure, as leader, Scheer has ev­ery right to de­cide who is in or out of his shadow cab­i­net. The prime min­is­ter, in the same way, has ev­ery right to set an in­de­pen­dent Cana­dian agri­cul­tural pol­icy, re­gard­less of what the Amer­i­cans might pre­fer. And if ei­ther leader elects to stick with sup­ply man­age­ment, that, too, is his right.

But noth­ing says they have to. No grand prin­ci­ple de­manded Scheer re­lieve Bernier of his du­ties for speak­ing against it: shadow cabinets are not bound, as real cabinets are, by the prin­ci­ple of cab­i­net sol­i­dar­ity. Nei­ther would there be any nec­es­sary sac­ri­fice of sovereignty if the prime min­is­ter were to abol­ish sup­ply man­age­ment, even if that hap­pens to top Trump’s wish­list. It is as much an act of sovereignty to scrap a pol­icy as keep it.

Driv­ing both lead­ers’ de­ci­sions, rather, are the usual cal­cu­la­tions of pol­i­tics. But the pres­sures they are un­der are self-im­posed; they are prisoners of their own de­vis­ing.

No doubt it is em­bar­rass­ing to Scheer that Bernier should so pub­licly dis­sent from the party line — but that is only be­cause he has ac­cepted as a rule that there must be a sin­gle party line, and that it is the leader’s job to en­force it. As there is no ne­ces­sity for such a rule, so there is none for em­bar­rass­ment.

So Bernier takes a dif­fer­ent line. So, gasp, he even posts his en­tirely fa­mil­iar po­si­tion on his web­site. So what? It is Scheer who has made this into a cri­sis, not Bernier.

The prime min­is­ter, like­wise, fears he would look weak if he were to “con­cede” to Trump on sup­ply man­age­ment. But it is as much an act of weak­ness to hold fast to a pol­icy we would other­wise dis­card, merely be­cause another coun­try had de­manded it, as it would be to dis­card it for that rea­son.

So both have a right to do what they are do­ing — and yet they are both wrong to do so. The pol­icy they are so des­per­ate to re­tain is not good pol­icy, and what is worse, both of them know it.

There is no se­ri­ous case for sup­ply man­age­ment — a pol­icy that is as un­just, inas­much as it im­poses the heav­i­est bur­den on the poor­est fam­i­lies, as it is in­ef­fi­cient; that locks out new farm­ers and deters ex­ist­ing farm­ers from seek­ing new mar­kets; and that makes us look ut­ter hyp­ocrites in free­trade talks, not only with the U.S., but the rest of the world — and no se­ri­ous per­son whose liveli­hood does not de­pend upon it would make it.

And yet ev­ery mem­ber of ev­ery party is obliged to swear a public oath of undy­ing fealty to it. That all do, but for one, is a sign of the in­sti­tu­tional rot in our pol­i­tics. For they do so not in spite of its aw­ful­ness but be­cause of it — be­cause the will­ing­ness to say two plus two equals five has be­come the ul­ti­mate test of loy­alty.

On other is­sues, that might be be­cause of gen­uine agree­ment. But a will­ing­ness to sign onto a truly hideous pol­icy like sup­ply man­age­ment — that’s cer­tain proof an MP is a “team player.”

Why is sup­ply man­age­ment at the cen­tre of our pol­i­tics? Be­cause it stands at the in­ter­sec­tion of all of its most im­por­tant trends: the fe­ro­cious sys­tem of party dis­ci­pline; the sud­den open­ing in Que­bec; the undis­guised di­vi­sions in the Con­ser­va­tive Party; and our na­tional in­se­cu­rity rel­a­tive to the U.S., so eas­ily ex­ploited for par­ti­san gain. It is not ac­ci­den­tal but in­evitable.


Con­ser­va­tive MP Maxime Bernier leaves a cau­cus meet­ing on Par­lia­ment Hill Wed­nes­day.

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