Talk about supply management and whether or not it should fit in Canada’s future continues to find a place in our media. To be honest, whenever I see a link for a National Post article relating to the system for dairy, poultry and eggs, I have a hard time clicking since I can usually guess the author and the opinion. But when a tweet came across that TVO was hosting a debate on their evening current affairs show ‘The Agenda’, I couldn’t help but change the channel.
If you have never tuned in, the show on Ontario’s public station is hosted by one of the best journalists in the country. Steve Paikin is the man behind the desk for national leaders debates and for good reason. He asks good questions, always focuses on his guests, and will call ‘bull-shit’ (in a nicer way, of course) when the answer gets a little too political. He covers a lot of issues that don’t relate only to Ontario, so don’t be afraid to download his podcast.
The debate featured four men. Ron Versteeg is a dairy farmer and on the board of the Dairy Farmers of Canada. He appears to be the board’s spokesperson on this issue since I’ve seen his name and face several times over the last few weeks. Larry Martin is with the George Morris Centre, an agriculture policy think-tank that tends to push policy that leans right. Martin is well known in agriculture circles and always comes to the table with a well-researched, levelheaded approach. Bruce Muirhead was a new name for me. He is with the University of Waterloo as a professor of history and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research. He teaches history, America’s impact on Canada and foreign economic policy. Finally at the table, was the National Editor for MacLean’s magazine Andrew Coyne, who has penned a few editorials against the supply management system.
If you cannot see the below video click here
With the stage set, I’ll throw out by biases. Obviously as a young dairy farmer, I’m in favour of the system for a whole host of reasons. Second, I’m not a fan of media interviewing media on policy discussions. I don’t think Andrew should have been there. It should have been an economist or someone that puts more time and effort into agricultural policy, than someone that occasionally writes about it.
With that in mind, I felt Ron put forward a good argument from the point of a dairy farmer. His note that we as farmers shouldn’t have to compete against US and EU treasuries is a strong point, of course beyond the points that everyone in the system wins from consistent price, supply and quality. On the other side of the table, Andrew put forward his thoughts on the system as to why it should go. Unfortunately, I would have rather seen Larry Martin make a lot of those comments, as it would have carried more weight. Larry was good at pointing out some of the issues with the system and issues with the argument, but Andrew always seemed to jump onto an idea faster so Larry didn’t get as much time as he should have. The fourth at the table, to me, was the winner of the debate. I’d never heard of Bruce before, but he is obviously a very-informed professor that goes beyond on the basics of economics. He pointed out a lot of the issues that don’t get mentioned by either the dairy industry or those that want to eliminate the system, including the hypocrisy of other countries trade policy (like the US that allows 3% dairy products in before hitting a tariff versus Canada’s 6%) and New Zealand’s ‘non-supply managed system’ (in which one co-op processor owns more than 90% of the market and local milk prices are higher than Canada’s).
Bruce’s arguments went beyond the usual: quota is too expensive – no it isn’t; milk prices are higher in Windsor than Detroit – but there are no subsidies; or trade policy is mixed up because Canada is protecting dairy, poultry and eggs – everyone protects something. He looked at the true realities in today’s globalized trade world: free and fair trade doesn’t exist, even for those that say they are leading the way.
Overall, the debate was a good one. If you have a chance, you can find it online at theagenda.tvo.org or from the iTunes store.
Now as much as I want it to, I know this debate isn’t going away anytime soon. Trade talks will mean many media outlets and economists will push the idea Canada is single handedly holding up talks by protecting dairy, poultry and eggs. Meanwhile, in other countries, farmers will still get government cheques (since subsidies are off the table in these trade talks), companies will be allowed to hold market control, and everyone will work to hold on to their measures that put up tariff walls and block foreign product.
Looking back, I think the only thing the industry did wrong when creating the system, was we called it one.