Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and his staff are looking for ways to reduce the federal agriculture budget by three per cent, in line with what’s been asked of other federal departments.
That’s one of the pieces of information gleaned from a one-on-one interview with Minister MacAulay, recorded Thursday, Nov. 9.
MacAulay says he never dreamed he would return to his former role as Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, but that he was honoured, as a farmer, to be reappointed to the post during the federal cabinet shuffle back in August.
With a couple months under his belt, and having returned from a trip meeting with export customers in Asia last week, the minister discussed a wide range of topics — you can watch or listen below.
Trip to Asia last week
The minister was accompanied by over a dozen agriculture industry representatives as he traveled to Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea last week, including a formal trade mission with Trade Minister Mary Ng in Tokyo. MacAulay says there was a strong turnout of importers at the events hosted by the Canadian delegation. “They want a reliable supplier and we want a reliable market,” he says.
The Canadian government has previously announced nearly $32 million to establish the Indo-Pacific Agriculture and Agri-Food Office in Manila, Philippines. MacAulay says he expects this office will open in or around February.
If you watch/listen the interview, MacAulay initially sounds like he has flipped to being supportive of the private member’s bill that would remove the federal carbon tax from on-farm natural gas and propane, but his staff later said this was due to the minister being confused about which bill we were talking about. MacAulay was also one of the Atlantic MPs who joined Prime Minister Trudeau in announcing a three-year pause on the carbon tax on home heating oil two weeks ago, but the ag minister remains adamant that the carbon levy is necessary for addressing climate change.
“What you have to do in this situation is to make sure that we address the issue and that is what we’re doing. Farmers understand that the issue of carbon, the issue of climate has to be addressed. And if we do not do it, you pay it one way or the other in massive destruction or doing what we’re doing. Talking to farmers, they seem to be quite agreeable,” he says.
AgriRecovery aid for drought-affected livestock producers in the West
The federal and provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and BC have rolled out awaited AgriRecovery disaster relief programs for livestock producers over the last few weeks. Regarding complaints that the federal government took too long approving the programs and did not meet provincial funding requests, MacAulay says there’s criteria that must be followed, and that “it’s not easy to put these programs together.”
The minister also says he would certainly be in favour of making improvements to business risk management programs. “If there’s a way of working with the provinces and territories to put something together, that can be done faster, I’d be all for it. And to be more inclusive, if it can be. Because in the end, food is so important, and the production of food is so important,” he says.
Ag budget cuts
As noted above, MacAulay confirms Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is facing a three per cent budget reduction.
“It’s not an easy task, I can assure you, but that’s, in fact, what we’re doing. And that is what my job is, to make sure that we watch carefully that we don’t affect the agricultural programs to any great extent. But you’re asked to take three per cent out, so you have to take three per cent out,” says MacAulay.
Timeline for Sustainable Ag Strategy
It’s been nearly a year since MacAulay’s predecessor, Marie-Claude Bibeau, launched consultations on the federal Sustainable Agriculture Strategy — a broad policy document that is supposed to lay out environmental targets for the agriculture sector, including emissions from fertilizer. More than twenty stakeholder groups have since been meeting regularly as part of an advisory panel. At last word, the government was planning to publish a “What we heard” report on the consultations this fall, with a draft version of the strategy expected in early February, but MacAulay says he can’t provide a timeline.
MacAulay says he hopes stakeholder groups don’t back away from the Sustainable Ag Strategy table over not seeing eye-to-eye on what it should include, but acknowledges it could “probably” happen.
Grain Act review
Earlier this year, Minister Bibeau said she wanted to move ahead on modernizing the Canada Grain Act before the end of the calendar year. It’s a file that MacAulay is familiar with, as the Act and the role of the Canadian Grain Commission have been the subject of multiple reviews and rounds of consultations, with no major changes going back to the early 1970s.
MacAulay says his office is continuing to work on the Grain Act file and that they regularly hear from farm groups seeking changes. While he doesn’t offer a timeline, he says there’s “a lot of things we want to do with the Grain Act.”
The minister has not yet named who will serve as the chief commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission going forward, with Doug Chorney’s appointment expiring in December.
Number one priority?
MacAulay says his number one priority in his second stint as ag minister is “to help the industry and make sure that whatever changes we make do not negatively affect the agricultural sector.”
He specifically points to shrinking cattle numbers as a concern. “I want to do is anything we can do in order to make sure that the beef industry remains strong because Canadian beef is so sought after worldwide. It truly is. And they’ve done a great job in marketing Canadian beef,” he says.