With farmers, farm organizations, and accounting firms that work in agriculture voicing serious concerns about the federal government’s proposed tax changes, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay broke his media silence on the subject on Friday afternoon.
For all of 50 seconds.
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Facing the politically dangerous choice of siding with the farm community or the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues, MacAulay has been difficult to reach for comment in recent weeks. We received word earlier this week from his office that he would finally be available to comment on Friday afternoon in a conference call. The media callback was scheduled for the end of his visit to New Orleans, where he spoke at the annual meeting for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Fast forward to 3 pm eastern on Friday. MacAulay read a short speech over the phone about his meetings and the trade messages he delivered in Louisiana, and the conference call operator opened the call to questions from reporters.
Given the opportunity, I asked whether he supports the proposed tax changes.
“It’s proposed tax changes,” he emphasized. “And we have to look at what the legislation would be when it comes forward. But of course we want to hear from farmers and I’ve indicated clearly that we have consultations that are open to everybody, and to make sure whatever concerns they have, that they’re brought forward.”
The protocol on these media calls is that each reporter gets to ask one question and one follow-up. As a follow-up, I asked whether MacAulay has spoken up and expressed farmers’ concerns to cabinet and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
MacAulay responded by saying that as a minister, he has a voice in cabinet meetings. “What I’ve indicated to farmers and anybody that has talked to me is to make sure their concerns or suggestions are brought to the Minister of Finance and I expect that’s what they’re doing.”
And that was it.
Because, before I thought to press *1 on the phone keypad to get back in the question queue, the operator stepped in and said “Minister MacAulay, there are no further questions from the media.”
To my surprise, nobody else asked any questions.
Given the backlash from the agriculture community, this was an opportunity to finally hear what the Minister of Agriculture thought about the proposed tax changes. With doctors speaking out, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor was questioned earlier in the week on her stance. It wouldn’t have been surprising to have mainstream media reporters on the call asking MacAulay about the tax changes.
I’m sure MacAulay and his staff were expecting more. They know they’re in a tough position, and with the House of Commons resuming sitting, he can’t hide for long. From a communications perspective, a media teleconference was maybe the easiest way to break his silence on the topic, given: he could have talking points right in front of him, the call could’ve been muted to discuss his responses, there were no cameras showing body language, and it’s easy for his staff to step in and say they don’t have any more time.
There are a number of potential reasons and factors for why MacAulay was, in my opinion, let off easy in his first media availability in a while.
It may have been because the call was strategically scheduled on a Friday afternoon when at least one other reporter who would’ve covered it was on holidays, or maybe we over-estimated the news value of getting the agriculture minister’s opinion. It’s possible a technical glitch kept others from asking questions. We don’t know. Looking back, we can blame ourselves for not having had multiple reporters on the call and entering the question queue.
What we do know is MacAulay still hasn’t said much — or had to say much — on what he thinks about the proposed changes the agriculture community is very concerned about.
We’ll keep trying. I expect we could hear more from him with the House resuming on Monday.