Orange crush causes apprehension in ag industry

It’s not just the Alberta energy industry that is feeling some consternation from the recent NDP election victory

the agriculture sector also feels some apprehension with our new political masters. At least the energy industry has some familiarity with NDP philosophy on issues relating to their business, but agriculture is left mostly in the dark as to what the new Alberta NDP has in store for their sector.  That’s because the NDP never dreamed they had any electoral hope whatsoever outside of Edmonton and Calgary. Accordingly they spent no time or resources on developing a significant agriculture and rural development policy platform. In addition, in many rural and small town Alberta ridings they fielded sacrifice candidates, even parachuting some in from afar.  But this remarkable election changed everything, with at least ten new NDP ridings having rural and small town sections – some of them with significant agricultural production.

Only two of the newly minted NDP MLAs have some connection to agriculture, that’s actually pretty good considering the party is overwhelming dominated by an urban political establishment. The most recent NDP ag critic was MLA David Eggen, a teacher from Edmonton, but he was also burdened with numerous other critic roles. It’s unlikely he will be the new ag minister, but instead is expected to be named to another prominent cabinet post. To be fair one doesn’t need to have a connection to agriculture or come from a rural area to be the Minister of Agriculture, but it sure helps to know something about the language and culture. Agriculture and rural development is by far the most complex government department and industry to understand. The sheer diversity of production, processing and marketing make it difficult to manage with vociferous vested interests involved at every level. The industry is by far the most political of any economic sector and probably the most exasperating for any Minister. At the time of writing no new ag minister had yet been announced. The ag department has been somewhat of a revolving door cabinet post – at last count there have been 9 ag ministers in the last 15 years. There is a message in that endless parade.

As to what little ag policy the NDP has its pretty thin with much of it being standard boilerplate, with some of it looking suspiciously drawn from the National Farmers Union playbook. Issues like rail service and seed grower rights are noted, but they are essentially under federal jurisdiction.  The one issue that is clear is the NDP policy on farm worker rights – they will now be implemented and soon. History shows that one of the first legislative changes newly-elected NDP governments make is to dramatically alter provincial labour laws to favour workers. The NDP and their labour union allies have long championed farm worker rights against an intransigent, now former, PC government. The ag industry would be wise to admit defeat on this issue and not to aggravate a new administration with stubborn resistance. Better to offer to work with the new government on this inevitable change rather than suffer their displeasure. One ag sector that will feel more secure is poultry and dairy production. The NDP are long-time and steadfast supporters of supply management. The former PC government were lukewarm supporters and were long-time foes of the now defunct Canadian Wheat Board.

The underlying worry is that a new highly urban-focused NDP government will see some politically correct notions being pushed onto commercial agriculture. Notwithstanding the farm worker rights matter, which is a human right; one fears that trendy perceptions on pesticide use, water allocation, land use, organic agriculture and others might be imposed on the ag industry against science and common sense. Hopefully more reasonable approaches will prevail. On the other hand one does hope that with a radically new government that some structural changes and plans can be made which will promote and develop better and more agricultural production (particularly with irrigation and grazing) and processing in this province.

Finally one note of transparency, your humble writer was well acquainted with former NDP leader the late Grant Notley, the father of our new Premier. I had the honour of meeting him several times whilst I was ranching just across the BC border from his old Spirit River-Fairview riding. He was one of those few politicians that could inspire trust and hope and spoke honestly. He was universally admired. One hopes that the newly elected NDP government will rule with that guiding spirit.