New Minister Needs To Make Some Dramatic Decisions

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The minister upon being appointed did receive an unpleasant welcoming gift -a budget cut

New agriculture ministers must get a feeling of self-importance, if the endless parade of lobby groups to their door is any indication. It’s almost a ritual with competing groups wanting to get to the new minister first in the hope to sway his views on any particular subject.

In the meantime senior ag department staff are busily piling policy positions on the new minister’s desk to make sure he doesn’t stray too far from the path with any new ideas of his own. Heaven forbid if he has any ideas of reversing previous decisions, no matter how ill-conceived. “Never admit to any mistakes” is a mantra with government politicians and senior bureaucrats.

Your humble editor was granted an audience with new Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden recently, a get-acquainted session so to speak. From our discussions I got the impression that he was prepared to review past contentious issues. That would be a wise approach considering the dismal standing of his political party in the countryside. Hayden seems determined to deal with the national cattle checkoff concern, which was inadvertently wiped out by Bill 43, an unprecedented bureaucratic political blunder.

I would not be surprised to see the $1 per head mandatory non-refundable national cattle checkoff restored very soon. The minister noted that Alberta would be the only province out of step with the rest of the country if it did not restore the national checkoff on Alberta cattle sales. No doubt hard-line cattle feeders will be outraged when this occurs, having tasted victory with the $4 million checkoff gift from the previous minister. ABP supporters will probably feel partially vindicated. At least this minister can count votes. Sticking it to a few hundred cattle feeders looks a lot better to 20,000-plus cow-calf producers.

The new minister upon being appointed did receive an unpleasant welcoming gift – a budget cut. It seems to hover around $300 million or about four per cent. Various

programs were tinkered with and there is an assumption that if next year is a normal year with no market or weather calamities there would be no additional financial support needed from the department. Deputies will no doubt also be shifting employees to agencies and secondments to make it look like the cutbacks are real.

One controversial agency that dodged the cutback axe was the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency (ALMA). Its budget was maintained, but then it was on a spending spree over the last year. The minister stated that he is giving the agency another year to prove itself before he will review its future. Cynical ag industry observers noted that ALMA’s future probably became a whole lot more secure when the Wildrose Alliance party stated that this would be one agency it would terminate to save taxpayer money. In the political theatre, entrenched governments would never do what their political opponents are suggesting they do, in this case that would be admitting to a mistake. Instead, I see ALMA expanding as the ag department will want to bury more employees in that agency, along with the Alberta Grains Council, Marketing Council and a host of other hideouts.

The new minister seems to share the perspective that the cattle industry needs to become more unified to save itself, a fantasy that none of us will live long enough to see happen, particularly after all the acrimony the previous minister created when he took sides.

The new minister will be under pressure to make some dramatic decisions to improve the image of the government in the countryside. But that will depend on the next voter poll. If that is more favourable to the government, and cattle and hog prices recover significantly this fall as expected, government rural politicians are sure to fall back into complacency, feeling fairly secure with their divine right to rule.

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