Export agency idea sounds vaguely familiar

In the press release summarizing the discussions at the recent annual meeting of the federal/provincial/territorial ministers of agriculture, reference was made to a “Market Access Secretariat.” Apparently the honourable ministers have decided to support the creation of a new federal agency whose purpose is, “identifying and taking full advantage of market access opportunities, and addressing bilateral and multilateral trade matters, including trade restrictions.”

One almost cringes whenever a government announces the creation of another new agency. Besides the inevitable cost and bureaucracy it creates, one expects it is a way for governments to hide or deflect problems into a black hole of mindless bureaucratic “busybodiness.”

No doubt this secretariat will involve cross-country consultation meetings, endless trade opportunity studies, and of course, high-flying trade missions to faraway places. One suspects that much of this has already been done or is being doing by government trade departments across the country. But true to form, much of that will be ignored and the new agency will re-invent the wheel with your tax dollars.

Those of us very long in the tooth might sense some familiarity with the concept of an agriculture trade agency. Your suspicions would be correct – with similar fanfare – in 1983 – the then federal minister of agriculture, the legendary Eugene Whelan established an agriculture trade agency called CANAGREX.

In its own words, it was: “to deal with the problems of agricultural trade, bringing under one roof all of the federal government departments involved in agricultural trade to achieve a better coordinated national effort on the international scene.” History, as we all know, especially in agriculture, does repeat itself.

I recall at the time CANAGREX was furiously opposed by a number of agriculture organizations as nothing more than a Trudeau-inspired attempt to nationalize the export of Canadian agricultural products – sort of like a super Canadian Wheat Board. Interestingly, Wayne Easter the present federal Liberal agriculture critic, in his former capacity as NFU president was an advisor to CANAGREX.

CANAGREX was disbanded by the Mulroney government in 1987 – a political payoff I presume. One of the lead organizations that fought for its termination was none other than our own Alberta Cattle Feeders Association – an organization which now probably supports the creation of a very similar export agency. How times change.

Its probably hard to remember what inspired the creation of CANAGREX back then, but the idea for a new trade secretariat at present seemed to have begun with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). I recall the frustration of the leaders of the CCA with the shortcomings of Agriculture Canada and its offspring, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) over ramifications from the BSE crisis.

At the time the CCA had hopes that both Ag Canada and the CFIA would work hard at re-opening export markets closed to Canadian beef. In retrospect, the opposite seemed to have happened: the CFIA in particular, through its own curious agenda, made life even more difficult for the cattle and beef industry. Ag Canada just seemed to be out of its league with the BSE issue and had no idea how to be more proactive and aggressive on the trade file.

The CCA, to its credit, pursued the idea of a separate ag trade group that could focus all its attention on trade issues from every angle. That idea would take trade out of the hands of Ag Canada, which is plagued with many diverse responsibilities, all of them subject to bureaucratic competing interests – which usually results in paralysis. No doubt there are machinations going on within the department as bureaucrats scrap over whose turf is being threatened by the new agency.

At this point, there does not seem to be any opposition developing to the export trade agency proposal by ag organizations as was the case with CANAGREX. But then at the time, the much despised (at least in the west) Trudeau was in power. Also, I expect most of the bureaucrats and politicians that were around back then are safely retired and don’t have to deal with the possibility of having to admit that the termination of CANAGREX was a mistake. It’s all quite bemusing and somewhat ironic.

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