CPC leadership hopefuls list ending carbon tax as priority for agriculture

Party leadership candidates also look to strengthen trade relationships

Removing the carbon tax is the main priority for the two top Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership candidates, according to a recent survey.

Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, considered the front-runners in a small field of leadership hopefuls, listed eliminating the environmental policy in response to a series of questions posed to them by the Western Canadian Wheat Growers.

In his response to a query on top priorities for farmers and industry across the Prairies, MacKay, a Harper-era cabinet minister, spent the first two paragraphs lambasting policies of the current Liberal government, declaring “Canada’s agriculture producers feel betrayed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.”

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He then proposed “restoring confidence in Ottawa” by first removing the carbon pricing plan imposed on producers by the Liberals in 2019, then working to “reduce regulatory burden on our agricultural sector.”

The former attorney general and defence minister went on to mention removing barriers to young farmers and ensuring “policy decisions are based on science, not activism.”

He also stated he would protect Canada’s food supply from illegal blockades and ensure industry “doesn’t suffer unfair competition.” He also committed to investing in the delivery of broadband internet capabilities.

O’Toole’s response listed ending the carbon tax as the first priority, before committing to defending and expanding foreign markets.

The Ontario MP from Durham also proposed expanding rural transportation and communication infrastructure to “help get products to market and allow farmers to adopt new digital farming technologies.”

Like, MacKay, he also spoke to tax reforms, pledging to reduce and simplify them.

In listing their priorities, the two hopefuls offered slight differences on some specifics, but largely spoke to the same big-picture ideas.

AgriStability

Leslyn Lewis, who is courting the social conservative vote and considered to be running a distant third, differed in her priorities. Like the others, she cited reforming tax rules to better allow for intergenerational transfers; but she also pledged to restore the AgriStability program to cover 85 per cent of losses.

Soon after the Harper Conservative government reduced AgriStability support in 2012, Canadian farmers started pushing to restore it to previous levels. They continue to argue the program doesn’t provide the level of income stability farmers need.

Lewis was the only candidate to definitively say restoring the program to previous levels would be a priority, or mention it at all, despite the notion being a long-time and frequent ask of producer groups from coast to coast.

The Toronto-based lawyer, who has never served in Parliament, said she would also be “applying a national security lens to Canada’s agricultural sector to make sure we are prepared for the next global crisis.”

Like her running mates, Lewis also spoke to strengthening existing trade relationships and opening new ones.

In a question specific to the topic of international trade, MacKay said he would “bring in pro-employment trade policies” and “tear-down artificial trade barriers that inhibit agri-businesses from exporting their products.”

Exporters and producers continue to raise concern with non-tariff measures hampering the competitiveness of Canadian businesses in international markets.

Trade expectations

Artificial trade barriers have dampened enthusiasm for recent trade deals. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, negotiated under the previous Conservative government, is often cited as an example of liberalized trade failing to meet expectations.

While the complexity of non-tariff measures makes it difficult to quantify the amount of money lost by producers as a result of such barriers, a 2017 parliamentary report found the sum effect of non-tariff measures for agrifood exporters is equivalent to a tariff of 25-30 per cent in Asia and 30-40 per cent for the European market.

MacKay said his trade-policies would put Canadian businesses first, while protecting them from “hostile nations, like China, that do not share our interests.”

Under the current Liberal government, Canada is currently leading an effort to reform the World Trade Organization (WTO), which in recent months has been thrown into turmoil as countries flout its authority.

The United States has halted the WTO’s ability to resolve trade disputes between nations, while China continues to frustrate free traders by continuing to make arbitrary and often politically-based decisions that slow the free-flow of goods.

In his response to the question, MacKay turned his response away from international matters to domestic ones by stating a need to “fix our own backyard first.” To that end, he included a pledge to work with premiers to tear down inter-provincial trade barriers that inhibit market access to Canadian agribusinesses.

O’Toole took the question as an opportunity to cite his experiences as parliamentary secretary for international trade under the previous Conservative government, stating he “worked closely with Canadian farmers in negotiating and completing ground-breaking trade agreements with dozens of countries in Europe and Asia.”

Those deals he helped negotiate are, in some instances, the same ones that have failed to live up their initial billing to producers; but from January to May 2020, Canadian agri-food and seafood exports did increase by 6.1 per cent compared to the year prior, reaching $29 billion compared with $27.1 billion for the same period last year.

Despite international volatility and trade tensions, the United States (52.7 per cent), China (12.1 per cent) and the EU (5.7 per cent) continue to make up a significant portion of Canada’s export destinations.

Lewis stated her full support for new and expanded trading relationships.

“I would however do so in a responsible manner that ensures Canada maintains its own supportive frameworks, particularly supply management,” she wrote.

The Wheat Growers also asked candidates about rural infrastructure investments, as well as how they would ensure an accountable and efficient grain transportation system.

Here, MacKay and O’Toole gave fairly distinct answers.

“I will prioritize long-term investments to modernize and improve transportation infrastructure. I will also remove artificial barriers to stimulate private sector investments in infrastructure and will prioritize national infrastructure programs to help deliver Canadian agricultural goods faster and more efficiently,” MacKay said in his written response.

“Finally, I will end any further disruptions from unlawful protesters who threaten the delivery of agricultural inputs and exports.”

The resiliency of Canada’s rail transportation system has been tested throughout the years, but particularly over 2019-20. A late harvest caused problems for producers, which wasn’t helped when CN rail workers when on strike in November.

Then, an early winter snap forced rail companies to shorten trains only weeks prior to a January rockslide which blocked CN’s main line through the Fraser Canyon, followed by a washout that kept the line inoperable until February.

Federal government orders to “go slow” were prompted by a derailed train carrying crude oil through Saskatchewan, and anti-pipeline blockades disrupted rail traffic at several lines and container terminals.

Since then, the pandemic has caused periods where container availability is a concern. In all, since November there have been more than 13,000 rail car orders cancelled.

O’Toole called for improved services through competition, writing too many of Canada’s big corporations “are coddled and protected by a government that serves them more than it serves the people.

“Just like how I’ve promised to help consumers by opening our airlines and wireless services to more foreign competition, I would make sure that we have enough competitive pressure on our railroads to incent them to invest and provide affordable and timely service to farmers and shippers,” he said.

“If markets remain underserved, I would be supportive of the federal government earmarking infrastructure funds to help build out further rail connections.”

In her response to the question, Lewis said Canada cannot be reliant on foreign governments.

“My promise to Canadians is that I will use every tool at my disposal to increase investment in Canada, and revitalize our energy, farming and other resource sectors,” she said.

Each of the three candidates committed to supporting agricultural innovation, with Lewis and MacKay highlighting a need to further invest in research and development. O’Toole and Mackay proposed eliminating red tape to allow for further innovation.

All three candidates pledged to support the delivery of internet connectivity in rural areas.

As of press time, the remaining leadership hopeful, Ontario MP Derek Sloan, had not responded to the questions.

CPC brass reported 269,469 members are eligible to cast a mail-in ballot prior to the party’s Aug. 21 deadline.

Members are faced with selecting a new leader after Regina-based MP Andrew Scheer, who was chosen in 2017, announced in December he was resigning from the role.

Unlike Scheer’s leadership race, agricultural issues have largely taken a backseat amongst the candidates.

In 2017, the issue of supply managed industries was central to the decision party members ultimately made. At that time, Scheer’s main opponent, Maxime Bernier, committed to phasing out supply management, thrusting the issue to the forefront of the race.

Bernier, during his leadership bid at the time, was also the MP for a riding with one of the highest concentrations of dairy farmers.

“Let’s work for Canadian consumers. How come we’re Conservatives? We believe in free markets. How come we cannot have a free market under supply management? Just abolish that and we’ll have more freedom,” he aid during a 2017 debate.

Following his loss to Scheer, Bernier formed his own political party and he has since moved to the periphery of political discourse in Canada.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have continued to pledge allegiance to supply management under the leadership of Scheer –a commitment expected to continue under the party’s next leader.

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

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