A Conservative leadership candidate says he can no longer reconcile his support for free-market principles with Canada's system of supply management for the dairy and poultry industry.
And so veteran Quebec Tory Maxime Bernier has formally come out against what he calls a "government cartel," and is urging fellow Conservatives not to run away from the debate.
Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Supply management was introduced for the dairy industry in the 1960s and for poultry and egg producers in the early 1970s as a means of shielding Canadian farmers from unstable market fluctuations with minimum, made-in-Canada prices. It also sets quotas for domestic producers and imposes tariff controls on foreign competition.
While many farmers have said the system protects their way of life, critics argue it makes milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and chicken more expensive for average Canadians and stifles innovation and competitiveness.
According to a copy of Bernier's prepared remarks, the MP noted that he defended his party's support of supply management since first being elected to the House of Commons in 2006.
"I was not in a position to question the party's democratic decision or cabinet solidarity," he said. "And so I went along with it, even though I had grave misgivings about it for all these years."
System contradicts Tory principles: Bernier
Now that he is running for his party's leadership, Bernier — who fancies himself something of a libertarian — says conservative values need to be defended with conviction.
"I think we Conservatives are not credible when we talk about principles and then defend policies that squarely contradict these principles," Bernier said.
While conceding that supply management does have advantages — namely in the way it provides a level of stability for producers — he said the system is "fundamentally unfair" to consumers, farmers, and businesses.
In the interest of protecting 10 per cent of Canadian farmers, Bernier said, all families — including low-income Canadians — must pay hundreds more each year for food staples.
"Supply management is also unfair to the other 90 per cent of farmers who cannot develop their export markets as much as they otherwise could," he said, adding that Canada always negotiates free trade agreements with the focus on protecting the system rather than trying to open new markets.
Riding has largest number of farms under supply management
Bernier also conceded Canada could not just do away with the system and leave farmers in the lurch. Instead he argued for a phase-out of import barriers, domestic quotas, and the price control system over several years, as was done in Australia. Farmers, he said, must be "properly compensated" and a temporary levy on products would be raised on products to ease the transition.
Bernier said it is time for Tories to stop treating the very discussion as taboo, despite the powerful lobbies in the supply management sector.
"My own riding is among those with the largest number of farms under supply management in Canada," he said. "But political leadership is about tackling difficult issues, not avoiding them."
Bernier's remarks evidently made an impression on former Tory finance minister Joe Oliver, who took to Twitter to call the position "courageous."
Not ready to support a Cons leadership candidate but I salute Maxime Bernier for courageous & principled opposition to supply mgt. #gotmilk
— Joe Oliver (@joeoliver1) May 31, 2016
Oliver is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Montreal Economic Institute think tank. Bernier was the group's vice-president before making the jump to politics.
Three years ago, Liberal leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay also called for the end to Canada's supply management system.
"The average family pays hundreds of dollars more than they should. It's regressive," Hall Findlay told The Huffington Post Canada. "The people who pay the most proportionally are the people less capable of affording it — single parent families with small children."
With files from The Canadian Press