Checkoff change should be just the first step

Alberta Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden will soon be taking a step to undo some of the damage done to the cattle industry by his predecessor. That step by itself is monumental, being government politicians and bureaucrats are loathe to think, never mind admit, that they might have made a mistake. The minister will be making amendments to legislation which made the Alberta Beef Producers $3 per head checkoff refundable. The $1 per head national checkoff portion will now be made non-refundable. That would put it into line with cattle checkoffs in the other provinces and allow for the collection of a national checkoff on cattle and beef imports.

The re-imposition of the non-refundable national checkoff in Alberta will once again provide more secure funding to such groups as the Beef Information Centre, Canada Beef Export Federation, and other national cattle producer agencies. That funding is critical not only because this province supplies 40 per cent of the national share, but they are used to obtain matching grants from government programs.

When Minister Hayden assumed the agriculture portfolio, he stated that he would be re-instating the $1 national checkoff. At the time, he may have spoken too soon as cattle industry supporters of the refundable checkoff mounted a furious lobbying effort right into the Premier’s office. To deal with that political challenge the minister arm wrestled the two main antagonists, the Alberta Beef Producers and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association into a series of secret meetings to come to a joint understanding on re-instating a non-refundable national checkoff. Perhaps the cattle feeders came to the realization that their original total victory over the non-refundable checkoff issue was a bit too one-sided so they relented on one out of three dollars – that’s still a 66 per cent victory.

Considering all the acrimony and havoc that the refundable checkoff issue has caused to the livestock industry, one begins to ponder what has been achieved with what can only be described as a huge divisive political blunder by the previous minister. Well, so far, valuable national and international marketing programs, and research and development initiatives were put into a state of suspension due to funding concerns. The latest checkoff refund figures show that the ABP will be facing an almost 50 per cent cut in funding which will see its activities slashed by that much. The absurd idea that somehow all of this was supposed to lead to cattle industry unity has had the exact opposite effect. The cow/calf producers and feedlot operators sectors are even further apart than before.

Well, there is a positive side if you are a large feedlot operator – checkoff refund figures are showing that operators with over 5,000 head are making most of the refund requests. And what are they going to do with their refund cheques? Well, I expect some of them will send a few loonies to their own organization as a token of appreciation. The rest will probably go into their own pockets or more likely their banker’s pockets. But I guess that was the plan all along despite all the self-righteous rhetoric about ABP accountability. At least, when the checkoff was non-refundable, the monies were carefully targeted and allocated for the good of the cattle industry.

In the cattle industry crossfire over the checkoff one forgets the other groups that were sideswiped by the legislation. Alberta Pork was also affected but they are keeping quiet about its impact on their finances. The hog industry has been on a downhill slide for a number of years with a mass exodus of producers. I expect their checkoff income has been on the skids for years and refundability will just add to the slide. The Alberta Lamb Producers organization was already in a precarious financial situation before they lost their non-refundable checkoff. It wouldn’t take too many refund requests to push them over the edge. The previous agriculture minister, when told about the ramifications of his dubious decision on the other livestock groups, stated to me that those groups could appeal to the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency for salvation. Well, good luck to them, they’ll need it if they want to survive.

Perhaps as a token of understanding of what problems this bad legislation has caused the other livestock groups, minister Hayden could extend his decision on changing the cattle checkoff to the other two groups. Since he will be making 33 per cent of the cattle checkoff non-refundable, perhaps as a gesture of goodwill and sympathy, he will extend that wise decision and make the hog and sheep checkoff 33 per cent non-refundable. It would be a very noble first step, and more importantly, quite politically astute.

Over to you, Minister Hayden, it’s easy, it can all be done with a stroke of the same pen