With fishing boats and family farms, Ottawa treads carefully—and craftily

The pitfalls of updating policy in sectors steeped in tradition

Fishing for a deal

Todd Korol/Reuters

Michael McGeoghegan was fishing off Nova Scotia’s Pictou Island, about an hour out of his home port of Pinette on Prince Edward Island, when along with the nice catch of herring he was pulling up, cellphone calls from the news media started coming in.

McGeoghegan, who at 62 has been fishing for more than three decades, is also president of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association. He and his group had been angrily opposing what they viewed as a stealthy federal government move toward changing long-standing rules requiring that East Coast fishing licences be held by actual fishermen, and for them to fish from boats they own. They feared regulatory reforms that would let fish processing companies buy up licences and boats, and pay someone else to fish. According to McGeoghegan, and many other fishermen, ending the so-called “fleet separation” and “owner-operator” restrictions would doom fishing traditions in small communities throughout the Atlantic provinces.

But last Friday, federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield issued a rather testy statement in a bid to put the issue to rest. “I have been displeased and, quite frankly, angered,” Ashfield said, “by some of the inaccuracies that have surfaced over the past several months suggesting that the owner-operator and fleet separation policies would be eliminated.” He went on: “Let me be absolutely clear: the fleet separation and owner-operator policies in Atlantic Canada will remain intact.” Soon after Ashfield issued that pledge, reporters began phoning McGeoghegan for comment. “I was really relieved and surprised that he did it,” he told Maclean’s. “I thought he’d listen to the big companies.”

While fishermen’s groups, and opposition politicians who sided with them, were claiming victory, Ashfield complained they had distorted his position. He said the changes his critics accused him of plotting were never really in the works. Still, for months he had refused to rule out making the contentious reforms about who can fish. His office says he was simply trying to remain even-handed during a sweeping consultation process launched early this year. Ashfield asked for wide-ranging input on modernizing the fishery, and his department is sifting some 5,000 responses—including some calling for companies to be allowed to own boats and hold licences. But an aide said there’s a big difference between Ashfield “going in with an open mind” and what his critics relentlessly claimed—that he was hatching a “covert plan” all along.

The way Ashfield was worn down on the issue—ultimately leading him to rule out some reforms before even he finished reviewing options—serves as a sharp reminder of the pitfalls that await any politician who sets out to update policy in sectors steeped in tradition and even romance. Fishing and farming are not like, say, automobiles and oil when it comes to the optics of economic policy. The stakes might be richer in big-time manufacturing and resource extraction, but the imagery is less compelling. McGeoghegan fielded those reporters’ questions last week not from an anonymous office, but from the deck of the Board N Glue, the 14-m wooden boat he and his son built with their own hands. In fact, he contends the old-time look of his sort of fishing lends it spinoff economic value. “Tourists come to P.E.I. to see the farms and fishermen,” he says. “Take one of them away, that hurts the tourism.”

The economic case for picturesque means of production only goes so far. Still, the lasting allure of the family farm, like that of the little fishing boat, lends the agricultural lobby an extra potency that politicians aren’t eager to test. That’s likely a key reason why, at recent meeting held in Whitehorse, the federal, provincial and territorial agriculture ministers agreed to deep cuts to farm subsidy programs—without offering advance notice to farm groups that would almost certainly have raised loud objections. Even after announcing the new five-year framework for farm-income supports, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his provincial counterparts were offering only the vaguest sense of the size of the cut to a key program, which is tapped by thousands of farmers every year if their incomes drop.

The multi-billion-dollar farm support schemes paid for jointly by Ottawa and the provinces are notoriously complicated. They range from programs designed to pay farmers hit by disasters like floods and droughts, to funds that ease the financial blow when commodity prices drop or expenses rise. In recent times, the programs have been rejigged every five years. In the new five-year deal announced on Sept. 14, Ritz touted “investments in strategic initiatives of over $3 billion for innovation, competitiveness and market development.” He said the new plan was not designed to save governments money, but rather to shift spending toward helping farmers anticipate and exploit emerging opportunities to sell, especially in Asia.

Of course, the farm lobby doesn’t object to new funds being injected into innovation. But Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and a beef cattle farmer in northern Ontario, says the new plan actually contains a major, largely disguised hit to a vital support program called AgriStability. Although its terms are complex, AgriStability has generally paid farmers when their incomes, after production costs, drop to 85 per cent or less than normal levels. The new federal-provincial deal will change the terms to pay out only when a farmer’s income plummets to 70 per cent or lower than normal. Ritz refuses to put a figure on how much that is expected to save the federal and provincial governments, but Bonnett cites $400 million a year as a reasonable estimate, although he cautions that the amount will range widely depending on commodity prices and other variables.

Even that deep a cut, though, might have been acceptable to Bonnett’s group if it was fully offset by the new spending on innovation that Ritz highlighted. But shared federal-provincial funding for those sorts of forward-looking programs is projected to rise to $2 billion over the five-year life of the new deal, from $1.3 billion over the past five years—or $140 million a year more, far less than the association’s estimate of what the governments will save by tightening the terms of AgriStability. “The stated intent is that they are going to make innovation investments, but they haven’t put their money where their mouth is,” Bonnett says. “It’s as simple as that.”

Yet he admits his association and other farm groups are unlikely to raise much of a fuss. The federal-provincial deal was signed before they had any firm sense of what it would contain. “Once you have the agreement [of Ottawa and the provinces] it’s very difficult to start backtracking from that,” Bonnett says. Unlike the East Coast fishermen, farmers weren’t given any chance to mount a pre-emptive lobbying campaign—and Ritz fared better than Ashfield. A cynic might draw the lesson that, when it comes to reforming policy in these sensitive sectors, open consultations amount to dangerous politics.

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