Delegates to the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture in late February could be excused for thinking a general election was under way.
Not only did they get the customary speech from Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, they also received a pitch from Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who is trying to establish a presence among voters before the next election, whether it’s in June or 2010.
Ignatieff, who has the same stiff, wordy style as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the delegates he has connections with agriculture through an uncle who was a dairy farmer in Quebec and the many food-processing and distribution facilities in his Toronto riding.
He’s been meeting farm leaders during his tours across the country, he said, and wants to end his party’s political drought in rural Canada. “I don’t have nearly enough seats in rural Canada.”
He’s also worried about a growing divide between rural and urban Canada, he said. “I don’t want a Canada where all the opportunities are downtown.”
A Liberal government would work to make farms profitable and more sustainable and attractive to a younger generation of farmers, he added. “We can’t run agriculture from an ivory tower in Ottawa.”
Ritz, who spoke the following morning, noted many of Ignatieff’s proposals were already Conservative government policy – defending supply management, encouraging beginning farmers, supporting new slaughter plants and promoting exports of farm products.
Ritz, who had nothing new to announce, said his focus was on increasing exports and he planned to keep travelling overseas to open more doors to Canadian products. “My job is to sell Canadian agriculture. Everywhere we go, we find new customers.” A market access secretariat is being set up at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to increase the focus on exports.
He countered complaints that not all the money in the $500 million “AgriFlex” program was new money by saying the money was taken from programs where it wasn’t being used. It made little sense to leave it just sitting there, he said.
He agreed to look at complaints from Manitoba delegates that the triggers for a disaster insurance program were unclear and had done nothing for livestock producers in that province who were hit with drought and flooding in 2008.
Ignatieff lavished the crowd with praise for the hard work and ingenuity of farmers, in a manner reminiscent of Brian Mulroney in 1983 as he worked on gaining enough support nationwide to win the 1984 election.
He pointed out three members of his agriculture team – MPs Wayne Easter and Mark Eyking and former agriculture minister Bob Speller – who watched the speech. But he didn’t mention Bob Friesen, the former CFA president and Liberal candidate in last year’s election, who was also in the crowd.
Both Ritz and Ignatieff drew respectable but skeptical applause from the delegates.