If you think the theatre of 100,000 people in the streets every night in Quebec, coupled with pot-banging and endless (largely sympathetic) media coverage, was over the top, wait until any federal government threatens supply management.
Political hell hath no fury like dairy farmers aroused. They showed it four decades ago when they painted slogans on barn roofs across Quebec, descended on Ottawa, dumped milk over the head of agriculture minister Eugene Whelan and bullied the federal Liberal government into the racket that is supply management.
Dairy and poultry producers are found in many places across Canada, but their heartland is rural Quebec and Ontario. Ever since these farmers got supply management – an attempt to balance domestic supplies and demand, with small quotas for imports and no thought of exports – they have defended it with every available tool.
How vise-like is their grip? A few years ago, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion instructing Canadian negotiators at international trade talks not to yield an inch of supply management's protections, including astronomically high tariffs on imports. Imagine, a unanimous motion from a body whose members would have trouble agreeing that today is Friday.
Urban MPs, whose constituents – especially low-income ones – are hosed by supply-management's high prices, and Western Canadian Conservative MPs, whose farming constituents play on the world stage, are rendered mute by their rural colleagues and by party leaders frightened of the supply-management lobby.
So no chink exists in the political armour defending supply management, either in Ottawa or at the provincial level. In Quebec, especially, the support is ubiquitous, in part because the producers are in a union – l'Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec – that is arguably the most powerful lobby group in Canada, along with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Any assault on supply management would be seen as an assault on Quebec, and we know what emotional wallop that punch brings.
The only pressure to change supply management has come from outside the country. The system has been regularly pilloried by Canada's trading partners, who rightly consider it highly protectionist. At various international trade negotiations, Canada has been put under pressure to change the system. All that did was change quotas into sky-high tariffs and open up the protected market a little bit to more imports.
At those meetings, lobbyists for supply management always swarm the Canadian negotiating team. Every meeting is monitored, every statement parsed, every opportunity to presents the farmers' case exploited. And every government – Liberal or Conservative – has therefore entered negotiations singing the praises of worldwide free trade while singing another hymn to the virtues of protectionism for supply management.
Now, Canada has been allowed – after furious lobbying with the Americans – into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a move deemed unlikely in this space last week) with the Prime Minister singing the songs of his predecessors. We need more free trade, sang Stephen Harper, and the TPP is one way to get at the burgeoning markets of Asia. But, he sang, we will protect supply management.
There are those who believe Mr. Harper actually wants to use the TPP to destroy supply management or at least to weaken it. As a free trader himself, he must see the absurdity of the protectionist racket that is supply management. But as a prime minister, he must also see the perils of arousing Quebec (and his own political base in rural Ontario).
So, chances are, he will try to use the TPP – and the free-trade deal with Europe – as a way of whittling away at the system.
Our friends in New Zealand and Australia didn't favour Canada joining the TPP because they knew Canada would obstruct progress on free trade in agriculture. Elements of the U.S. government didn't favour Canada's entry either, for reasons of supply management and other protectionist Canadian policies. It took the heaviest of lobbying by Mr. Harper and his staff to get Canada a seat at the table.
Having secured that seat, Canada will find supply management changes demanded by at least some of the other players. As usual, Canada will use every tactic to delay, frustrate and block any changes in order to keep dairy and poultry farmers off the streets of Montreal and Ottawa.