During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland wore a t-shirt that read: “Keep calm and negotiate NAFTA.” To farmers looking at the result, the shirt could just as easily have read “I renegotiated NAFTA, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”
Canada came to the table with very little to negotiate, and as a result we got exactly what we asked for.
The reaction at home has been predictable. Export-oriented producers (who comprise 90% of our farming population) cheered the stability that comes with predictable market access to our largest trading partner.
Supply-managed farmers decried what they felt to be another crack in their system. They have stopped short of demonstrating on Parliament Hill or showering cabinet ministers with milk – and despite claims that this could be the end, they likely won’t.
Supply management industry leaders knew that CPTPP concessions were the benchmark for this renegotiation. When compared against the United States’ original demand for the complete abolition of supply management, less than 4% in market concessions will be held up by our government (and one day SM leadership) as a win. The real work for SM leaders is just beginning, with the government (like its predecessor) offering fair and full compensation to offset financial losses. To have a seat and a say at that table, their criticism must be measured.
Supply-managed farmers have said they felt like a bargaining chip and from the beginning it was obvious that this would be true. By not bringing serious issues to the table, Canada was destined to be on the defensive. U.S. President Donald Trump was clear he wanted greater access for U.S. farmers into Canada’s supply-managed systems, and dairy producers became much needed leverage for Canadian negotiators – who, by the way, are among the best in the world.
In any trade negotiation, governments speak broadly and carefully. It is easy to roll one’s eyes when cabinet ministers say they only ever make deals that are “in the best interests of all Canadians,” but it is not as easy to be the one making the controversial and irreversible decisions required.
For instance, are dairy concessions a small price to pay for Canada to keep the chapter 19 dispute resolution mechanism? Should Canada put offensive interests on hold to pursue tariff exemptions on autos never needed before President Trump’s election? These are the types of decisions we elect governments to make, and voters will have their say next October as to whether the government got them right. Judging by Canadian agriculture’s reaction – this time they got it right. Or at least didn’t get it all wrong.
The government will sell this as a great deal for Canada. In reality, Canada brought a hockey stick to a gun fight and walked away with a minor flesh wound. While it may not have been everyone’s desired outcome, it is hard not to see it as a win.
—Jeff English is the public relations manager at Think Shift, a Winnipeg-based agency. He served as director of communications to former Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.