He was enthusiastically welcomed as the prime minister who scrapped the wheat board, earning a standing ovation before the first word of his keynote address.
But Stephen Harper had his eyes on an even bigger farm issue when he spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of nearly all of FarmTech’s 2,000 attendees.
In a sweeping political and economic analysis, Harper talked of powerful, chaotic forces upending a centuries-old world order — and also kicking up opportunities custom made for entrepreneurial farmers and agriculture.
“These are now unprecedented opportunities for your businesses,” he said. “The free trade access that my government left Canada with means Canada now has access to nearly two-thirds of the world market.
“It is a fairly unique Canadian competitive advantage. An advantage for you and everyone in our country.”
While that message was vintage Harper, it came after he painted a picture of a world beset by a powerful anti-globalization movement that is destroying old-line centrist parties that have promoted global trade.
You can see it everywhere, he said, from the rise of nativism and far-right movements to Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump. A host of countries have seen angry voters punish politicians favouring freer trade, including Britain, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, and India, he said.
“To quote Donald Trump — and this is my favourite Donald Trump quote — ‘What the hell is going on?’” said Harper, drawing a big laugh from the room that prompted him to quip, “That just works for so many things.”
He then laid out his counterintuitive case — namely that the biggest force underpinning the backlash against free trade has also created an unparalleled opportunity for Prairie farmers to sell more of their grain and livestock around the world.
Trade deals featured prominently in Harper’s recap of his government’s accomplishments. (He spent almost as much time poking fun at himself, including joking that he abandoned his plan to become an accountant because “I didn’t have the charisma.”)
“When I came to office, Canada had free trade agreements with only five countries in the entire world,” he said. “When we left office, we had concluded negotiations with 51 (countries) and all of those are going to be in place very shortly.”
He would repeat those figures twice more, even as he described how anger over lost jobs and stagnating wages has sparked fierce opposition to free trade, especially in the western world.
“It is a division between people whose interests are global — because literally or figuratively, they cross borders every day — and on the other side, those whose interests are local,” he said. “It is a division between those who believe they are benefiting from globalization… and an increasing number of people who believe they are not. And I believe we are only in the early stages of this.”
The game changer
To explain why, Harper gave his view on how communication technology has fundamentally altered the world.
He outlined how a 1980 strike at a Polish shipyard led by an electrician named Lech Walesa became the first of a series of dominoes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He noted that strike coincided with the appearance of the first personal computers and how Walesa, by now Poland’s president, later told him that unprecedented ability for ordinary people to communicate with each other was fundamental in those events.
“The forces that destroyed the Soviet Union have not ceased, they have accelerated and they are a growing power everywhere throughout the world,” said Harper. “Look at what is happening with Brexit, with Trump, the nationalist movements, and think back to the forces Lech Walesa was talking about in 1980.”
While it wasn’t easy back then to spot how communication technology would change the world, it’s obvious in the smartphone age, he said.
“It means everyone can receive vast quantities of information… (but) they don’t just receive information, they can transmit information around the world. “Meaning everyone can network with others, close by or far away.”
That’s a game changer unlike anything else, he said.
“Never before in human history, have the mass of people been empowered in this way.”
While a good part of this new-found power of the people, especially in Europe and the U.S., is now being directed against globalization, he said, that does not mean free traders — including Prairie grain and livestock producers — can’t win under this new scenario.
But you will have to change your approach, Harper told his FarmTech audience.
“Business is going to have to change,” he said. “Business isn’t just going to be about contracts and deals and laws. Business is going to become inseparable from developing relationships.”
He later gave a specific example when answering a question from the audience about protectionism in India, whose recent pulse tariffs have sent prices plunging and will slash Prairie pulse production by a million or more acres this spring.
The tariffs are a direct result of the country’s Byzantine political system and he noted that overturning them will be “a long, slow process.” But Harper, who started an international consulting firm after leaving office, has talked to business people in both India and China on recent visits, and believes they and their customers want to buy agricultural products from North America.
“They want them very badly,” he said. “They recognize they are superior in quality, superior in safety, superior in experience, and frankly usually in price, as well. This is what they want.”
Instead of relying on government-level negotiations, get to know the buyers who want what your farms are producing because they will work with you to open up their market, Harper urged his audience.
“Put pressure on the (Indian) government from the bottom up — not just the to
p down in trade negotiations — to open up their markets to the products that their people want to buy.”
And to do that, do what the anti-globalization groups are doing — use communication technology to build alliances, he said.
“You can develop direct relationships all around the world with your customers; with your suppliers; with your investors; with the communities in which you operate and sell; and their key decision makers.
“You have to do this.”