The crux of populist politics for agriculture



Farmers and ranchers across Canada and the United States identify with a hard day’s work, family, and a life away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You would have to drive many dirt roads before you found a farmer in either country identifying with “the elites.”

In the Right Honourable Stephen Harper’s recent speech at FarmTech in Edmonton, the former Canadian Prime Minister described the “elites” as the enemy of the populist movements in the United States and the United Kingdom (Brexit).

So who are the elites?

In the context of populism, it’s whoever is in power, or whoever benefits from maintaining the status quo. Harper defined today’s elites as people that stand for globalization and the establishment. He gave examples of banks, airlines, and mainstream media as groups that stand to benefit from a certain viewpoint. Harper even dropped a “fake news” line about the assertion that mainstream media was dying.

As I looked around the room of farmers from Alberta, there were many people nodding their heads thinking “that bloody Trudeau and his fellow elites.”

And yet, at the same time, there was Harper pointing out how elites believe in the global movement of goods in a global economy.

The crowd he was speaking to has benefited immensely from open trade. Harper himself campaigned on a track record of increasing the number of countries Canada had trade deals with from five to 44.

You would not find a farmer in that room that would argue against free trade. We export pork, beef, canola, wheat, soybeans, and pulses around the world based on this trade agenda — an agenda that is aligned with elitist views. Yet populism has a way of impacting people’s judgement on what is good for their farm.

Populism today is about protectionism and not trade. Populism is also hard on immigration and open borders. Unfortunately, farmers in the United Kingdom and the United States are slowly realizing what exactly they voted for.

In the U.S., president Donald Trump has built an agenda completely on a populist “America First” agenda. American farmers and ranchers clearly voted for Trump for a number of reasons, with contempt for the elitist Hillary Clinton being one of them. One of Trump’s biggest promises during the election was to renegotiate trade deals around the world to protect the interest of American workers.

Many in U.S. agriculture believed that Trump was talking tough and would back down once he won the presidency. Not so much, as he has continued his assault on trade. This is not what farmers wanted to see. U.S. manufacturing workers and farmers have much in common in attitude and work ethic but they do not agree on trade.

MUST READ: Trade Could be a Wedge Issue for Trump

In the United Kingdom, farmers voted strongly for Brexit based on anti-Europe sentiment, some of which was based on concerns about open borders with the EU for immigration. In a Farmers Weekly poll, 58 percent of respondents said they voted to leave the EU while 31 percent voted to remain.

Among those saying they wanted to leave the EU, non-farming issues such as sovereignty and immigration were top of mind, according to the Farmers Weekly story. When asked about farming-related issues affecting their choice, they overwhelmingly pointed to EU regulation and policies.

Based on some new survey data from the British National Farmers Union (NFU) there are significant agriculture jobs being left unfilled, even though the flow of immigration has still not been fully shut off. The survey found that more than 4,300 vacancies went unfilled at fruit and vegetable farms across the UK last year. The UK government has pushed for years for more Brits to take these roles. However, in reality, UK citizens don’t want them—even if many farms pay more than the minimum wage.

Ironically, these same vegetable growers suffering to find farm labour, also voted for Brexit. Essentially they voted to starve their own farms of workers.

UK agriculture benefitted significantly from trade with the EU but that was somehow forgotten during the Brexit vote as thoughts of a stronger UK could be made possible.

Stephen Harper made it clear that he felt Canada has avoided the populism movement up until this point because the middle class has been growing in Canada. People have had less reason to adopt protectionist and nationalist sentiments.

Although a self evaluation of his own resume, I do agree with Harper that Canada has somewhat avoided the growth of populism so far. However, as John Ibbitson and Darrel Bricker made clear in their Globe and Mail opinion column on February 10th, Canada is not immune to this movement.

Ibbitson and Bricker argue that populism is not about the economy but immigration. As in the UK, immigration greatly impacts agriculture as the industry attempts to find enough workers for traditional farm work. The duo wrote the following:

Populist reaction “is about ethnic shifts,” said Eric Kaufmann, the B.C.-raised political scientist at the University of London and the author of the forthcoming book Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Myth of Majority Decline. He believes cultural, not economic, insecurity is the driving force behind populism. He does not view people worried about immigration as white supremacists or ethnic nationalists. “But they are looking to slow down the rate of ethnic shifting.”

Kaufman’s theory has real truth to it. I was at two events in January where Darrell Bricker presented on shifting demographics and the takeaway for some was that his findings reinforced an eastern Canadian (get ready for it) elitist stereotype. This reaction supports the narrative that populism is a threat in Canadian agriculture as well, which may not be in our own economic best interest.

I do not suggest that farmers in the United States and Canada should vote for a certain party, but our industry needs to be much more aware of what we are getting into with our supported candidates in elections. Although farmers do not identify with any so-called elites, there are common economic interests.

This is not a Republican, Liberal, Democrat or Conservative issue. For export-focused North American agriculture, our industry has to be far less trusting of today’s populism movement and more focused on ideas that are in line with our industry and its ability to succeed.

Stronger borders, a beefed up military, and increased sovereignty have won support from farmers, but increased friction on profitable trading pathways could lead to significant ramifications for farmer populist support in the future. Most farmers have the same interests in trade as the person on Bay Street or Wall Street — just don’t call them elite.

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