Pop the bubble: Why farm groups need to spend more on lobbying

Parliament Building in Ottawa (Photo by Saffron Blaze, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Whether the government brings forward small business tax change legislation, the U.S. closes the border to Canadian cattle, or a bill (i.e. C-49) ends up locked in the Senate and going nowhere fast, our industry associations and member-based organizations lobby for change on behalf of farmers.

According to Wikipedia, lobbying is defined as: the act of attempting to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of officials in their daily life, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies. Lobbying, it reads, is done by many types of people, associations and organized groups, including individuals in the private sector, corporations, fellow legislators or government officials, or advocacy groups (interest groups).

Some people do not like the word, preferring instead to use “advocacy,” but the effort and intended results are the same — to influence regulatory decisions for the benefit of represented members.

Throughout the winter I have had many conversation with farmers across all sectors of Canadian agriculture. I have a keen interest in agricultural policy, and often ask producers about their perceptions and opinions on many policy-related topics. One of those is how checkoff dollars are directed, provincially and nationally, to fund lobbying efforts.

I have repeatedly heard farmers suggest that too much money is being spent on lobbying efforts, locally, nationally, and internationally. And though not all producers have this criticism, negative sentiment seems to be growing.

It shouldn’t.

Lobby organizations are incredibly important for farm-level profitability in the long-term.

For example, the Grain Growers of Canada, a group dedicated solely to lobbying, believes that its efforts are essential.

“Grain farmers across Canada know the impact that governments can have on their business,” says Jeff Nielsen, president of the Grain Growers of Canada.  “As farmers, we cannot sit back and let special interest groups make decisions that have negative impacts on our operations.”

We are living in a time that requires lobbying budgets to be raised, not dropped. Instead of cutting lobbying budgets in half, we should be doubling them.

With the increase in protectionism by major trading partners like India and the United States, lobbying by ag organizations has intensified. Too many times we see the photo opp with the Governor and the Premier instead of what happens behind the scenes — countless discussions between the commodity groups on both sides of border to ensure the meeting happens.

If you want your members objectives on the minds of domestic and international legislators, you need to lobby.

According to Jeff English, former press secretary for the federal agriculture minister, and now account executive at Thinkshift in Winnipeg, MB, a good lobbyist:

  • Knows how government works, and where power lies
  • Doesn’t meet just to meet
  • Uses their ever-growing network to stay up-to-date on important issues
  • Picks their battles. Everyone wants the government to be involved in their industry all the time. A good lobbyist knows what issues are important to their group, and also when they need to take a little water in their wine
  • Work well with all parties. Like it or not, this is important for groups. Having all parties understand issues helps out when it comes time for government to make important decisions

According to the Hill Times, there are 5,500 registered lobbyists in Ottawa and the following agriculture based lobbyists were identified in the publications top 100 lobbyists of 2017:

  • Ronald Davidson, director international trade, government and media relations, Canadian Meat Council
  • Mike Dungate, executive director, Chicken Farmers of Canada
  • Caroline Emond, executive director, Dairy Farmers of Canada
  • Brian Innes, vice-president, government relations, Canola Council of Canada
  • Tim Lambert, CEO, Egg Farmers of Canada
  • Marc LePage, president and CEO, Genome Canada
  • Rosemary MacLellan, senior director, strategy, Gay Lea Foods
  • John Masswohl, director, government and international relations, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
  • Carla Ventin, vice-president, federal government affairs, Food and Consumer Products of Canada
  • Garth Whyte, president and CEO, Fertilizer Canada
  • Michael Bourque, president and CEO, Railway Association of Canada

As you can see in the above list, supply management is well recognized with effective lobbyists. They are likely also the most resourced when compared to beef, pork, and broad acre crops.

Therese Beaulieu, assistant director, policy communications, Dairy Farmers of Canada’s says, “DFC lobbying efforts depend on the issues faced by the industry, and have increased over the past several months given the current issues faced by the industry. Trade agreements such as NAFTA and the newly signed CPTPP have been top of mind for our industry, and continue to be, as are some of the domestic issues around the Healthy Eating Strategy, such as Front of Pack labelling, which is currently undergoing the consultation process. We are working closely with the government on behalf of Canadian dairy farmers on these files, and others, to ensure that the dairy industry continues to be grow and thrive, for the benefit of all Canadians.”

So how much should organizations budget for lobby efforts? There is definitely no fast formula out there.

Barry Senft, CEO of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, says that the GFO lobbying budget, “has grown in a significant manner. Agriculture is getting more complex and in many ways we live and die by the regulations so its important to have input and influence with decision makers.”

Across the different organizations I talk to, lobbying budgets have been increasing as a general trend — but how do they measure effectiveness?  Some of the issues facing agriculture are not black and white. Some issues involve small wins over time or the least impactful of a series of poor outcomes.

According to Senft, “some issues are vague and require more interpretation of the results. The provincial neonic use reduction in Ontario is one of those issues. We knew we were fighting an uphill battle to change the governments plan, but it was about what came next after the plan that we attempted to influence more-so.” 

“Effectiveness is measured by Grain Growers of Canada’s ability to drive policy development on issues important to our members while ensuring that the government understands the needs of grain growers. While the government may not always act in the best interest of grain growers, an effective advocacy strategy ensures that government must address and respond to the positions put forward on behalf of grain growers,” says Nielsen.

If you look back at issues impacting agriculture in the last six months in Ottawa and beyond, it is substantial. Small business tax changes, the grain backlog, minimum wage hikes, trade deal negotiation, tariff hikes by trade partners, and risk management programs don’t even scratch the surface.

Consider also the lobbying resources environmental and animal activist groups commit to telling the other side of the story. It is substantial.

With the population of Canada becoming further removed from the farm, our issues are not an easy consideration by legislators. Agriculture is an important industry in public value and as an economy driver. Our interests and agenda need to be pushed at all levels of government domestically and internationally or we will continue to be pushed aside for other industries’ interests.

If you have an comments, feedback or questions send me an email at [email protected]

 

Shaun Haney

Shaun Haney is the founder of RealAgriculture.com. He creates content regularly and hosts RealAg Radio on Rural Radio 147 every weekday at 4:30 PM est. @shaunhaney

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