Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier is promising to free up the market for milk, egg and poultry in Canada, urging his rivals to show the same "courage" by going against the decades-old supply management system.
Mr. Bernier said Canada should phase out the system over five to 10 years, compensating farmers for the full value of their existing quotas at a cost of $18-billion to $28-billion. The money would come from a "temporary levy" on these products, after which there would be a "free, open and fair system for all, with lower prices, innovation, and more growth in the whole agricultural sector."
Currently, Mr. Bernier said, Canadian consumers are forced to pay an additional $2.6-billion a year for their milk, eggs and poultry products, in comparison to world prices.
Mr. Bernier is going against the Conservative Party's traditional position in favour of supply management, but also against the powerful lobby that includes dozens of farmers in his own riding of Beauce, south of Quebec City.
"Canada is the last country in the industrialized world to hold on to the supply management system, and it is time to put an end to it," Mr. Bernier said at a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.
While he brands himself as a free market enthusiast, Mr. Bernier has long spoken publicly in favour of the quota system. However, he admitted at his news conference that he did so out of respect for the Conservative Party's policy declaration.
"As an MP and minister in a government that supported supply management, I was not in a position to question the party's democratic decision, or cabinet solidarity. And so I went along with it, even though I had grave misgivings about it for all these years," said Mr. Bernier, who was first elected to the House in 2006.
The announcement comes as the Dairy Farmers of Canada are planning a large demonstration on Thursday on Parliament Hill – with many of them travelling on tractors – to fight for the preservation of supply management in Canada.
DFC spokeswoman Isabelle Bouchard said that Mr. Bernier's estimate of a $28-billion compensation package "falls short," saying there will be additional costs to keep Canada's farms afloat in a free-market regime.
Ms. Bouchard added that deregulation in other countries has caused falling income for farmers – and little reward for consumers.
"The OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] has said there is no correlation in the price paid to farmers and the price paid by consumers," Ms. Bouchard said.
Mr. Bernier has a tough road ahead of him, as all major political parties in Canada support supply management. In addition to winning the leadership race, set for May, 2017, Mr. Bernier would need to convince the Conservative Party to change its policy on supply management at a convention in 2018.
His top organizer in Quebec, Conservative MP Jacques Gourde, will not adhere to Mr. Bernier's policy and will keep fighting to preserve supply management, Mr. Bernier said.
Still, Mr. Bernier said he hopes that other candidates in the Conservative leadership race will line up with him against supply management.
"I'm a Conservative who believes in freedom and free markets," he told reporters. "You will have to ask the other candidates. I don't know if the others will have the courage to speak for 35 million Canadians."
Conservative MP Michael Chong, who is also running for his party's leadership, said Mr. Bernier's "unilateral" move would weaken Canada's position in international trade negotiations. In an interview, Mr. Chong said that in recent trade deals, Canada worked alongside the agricultural sector "to give up some protection in return for major concessions from our trading partners."
"Maxime is full of ideas, and I welcome this debate, but I don't agree with his position," Mr. Chong said.
The office of the third declared candidate, Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, did not respond to questions about her position on supply management.