Skip to main content
the lunch

Richard Doyle.RACHEL IDZERDA/The Globe and Mail

If Richard Doyle's job was to save the family farm, his long career as the dairy industry's top lobbyist would be considered a complete failure.

When Mr. Doyle, 60, joined the Dairy Farmers of Canada in 1976, there were 72,500 dairy farms across the country. Today, there are 12,200. And every year, a few hundred more disappear.

And yet the longtime DFC boss is widely recognized as one of Canada's most powerful and effective lobbyists – not just in agriculture, but in any sector.

In the 1970s, Mr. Doyle helped design the national milk marketing system, which tightly controls the supply and price of dairy products in Canada. And in the decades since, he has successfully beaten back a relentless barrage of challenges to the tariff wall and other measures that protect it – from foreign governments and the World Trade Organization to the restaurant industry, dairy processors and consumer groups.

Critics regularly deride the supply management regime as an anachronism in a free market economy – an odd relic of centralized control. Yet there it remains, virtually unaltered, and seemingly as politically untouchable as ever in spite of a globalized world.

Before breaking for the summer, MPs from all parties voted unanimously to urge the government to "respect its promise" to shield the industry from any fallout from the recently negotiated European free trade deal. The vote had echoes of a similar 2009 motion, when 100 per cent of MPs similarly stood up in the House of Commons to express unwavering support for supply management – the kind of unanimity more typically reserved for celebrating Olympic medal winners or condemning acts of terrorism.

Some people might wonder why Mr. Doyle and the dairy industry would cling so tenaciously to supply management. It's like an exclusive club, where membership has its privileges. Unlike most other Canadian farmers, who must deal with the vagaries of weather and price gyrations, dairy farmers can sleep at night, knowing they'll sell every last drop of milk they produce, at a fixed price and with a generous profit-margin built in.

Mr. Doyle's fingerprints are all over these demonstrations of political muscle – a powerful reminder to would-be challengers that Canada's shrinking population of dairy farmers still enjoys outsized support on Parliament Hill and beyond.

Mr. Doyle offers a seductively simple explanation for why his industry survives as a rare protected and centrally controlled corner of the economy: It isn't looking for government handouts.

"If you were a politician, why would you be against something that doesn't cost you anything?" Mr. Doyle asks rhetorically as he bites into a steak sandwich at Hy's, a favourite haunt of Ottawa power brokers. "It administers itself and consumers aren't really complaining about the price of milk."

He's partly right. Dairy farmers are a rarity in the farm community for not needing big government bailouts in lean years. There are no lean years when farmers set their own prices.

And yet dairy farmers are subsidized – by consumers. A recent Conference Board of Canada report found that inflated dairy prices have cost consumers an extra $26-billion at the grocery store over the past decade – $276 a year for every Canadian family.

But Mr. Doyle's success hinges on more than simply not leading dairy farmers to the government trough.

Mr. Doyle, a fluently bilingual francophone from Montreal, is the consummate lobbyist. He knows his complex and arcane industry better than virtually anyone in Canada – the result of nearly four decades immersed in its intricacies. He tosses around facts and figures with ease, passionately countering every challenge and quickly neutralizing opponents. He understands the trade environment better than many trade lawyers.

"You have to attribute a large amount of that policy success to Richard, personally," said deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale, a former federal agriculture minister. "He always has the facts up, down and sideways, in all of their arcane minutiae. And he can go on at length about that arcane minutiae. He never came to a meeting unprepared."

The industry is also highly political, and Mr. Doyle plays the game well. Roughly 10,000 of the country's 12,200 dairy farms are in Quebec and Ontario, along with a majority of seats in Parliament.

Mr. Doyle and the DFC also have a massive war chest -- to build goodwill, encourage consumption, to influence public policy and to lobby. The industry raises as much as $100-million nationally from levies on milk for marketing purposes -- roughly $75-million of which goes to the DFC. But Mr. Doyle insisted his lobbying efforts are paid for out of the $3-million a year he collects in membership dues from farmers, not the marketing levy.

"People say 'it's the big dairy lobby.' It's not. It's the farmers," he said. "They are in every rural county from one end of the country to the other, all saying the same thing to their MP."

For an industry that's all about playing defence, Mr. Doyle is forever on the attack. In early 2012, as Canada was preparing the ground for joining the Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, Canadian Council of Chief Executives president John Manley sent a letter to Stephen Harper, urging the Prime Minister to toss the dairy industry overboard to make better trade gains in the talks.

Mr. Doyle chose to bypass Mr. Manley. Instead, he fired off letters to several CEOs of Canada's big banks – all members of the council – reminding them of the billions of dollars they have tied up in loans to dairy farmers. "Most of the banks sent us a letter back indicating they were not consulted and strongly reiterated their support to supply managed industries," Mr. Doyle explained.

Those endorsements, like the Parliamentary motions, are a not-so-subtle reminder of the industry's vast network of support beyond the farm gate.

"I don't know of any riding where the dairy industry vote could defeat an MP," said Lyle Vanclief, a retired farmer and former Liberal agricultural minister who left politics in 2004. "It's not a big portion of the electorate, but their lobby is extremely successful, and Richard has led that."

Mr. Doyle is an unlikely flag-bearer for dairy farmers. He arrived in Ottawa in 1976 with a biology degree from the University of Montreal, dreaming of becoming a lobbyist.

There were no farmers in his family and he doesn't recall visiting a dairy farm until he joined the DFC straight out of university. A decade later, he became the organization's executive director – a post he will leave at the end of the summer when he retires after 38 years.

"I've spent most of my working life with farmers. So it's not an issue now," he said of his lack of farming knowledge.

Mr. Doyle said he's retiring a couple of years ahead of schedule because two of his top deputies are slated to retire this year, and he wanted to give his eventual successor an opportunity to hire their own staff.

During his career, Mr. Doyle has had a hand in most key developments in the dairy industry. He helped broker the creation of national milk marketing system in the 1970s -- the regime that makes supply management tick, determining who gets to produce how much milk, and where. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he became steeped in international trade negotiations after Canada lost a pivotal trade case that threatened to force the dismantling of supply management. Mr. Doyle spent weeks at a time in Geneva, briefing Canadian negotiators during the Uruguay Round of trade talks, leading up to the creation of the World Trade Organization. Back in Canada, he helped mobilize massive rallies of farmers to keep the government from bending.

"I met with him several times a day during the final round of negotiations," Mr. Goodale said. "Sometimes, he was across the desk from me. Sometimes, he was on top of the desk."

Canada would eventually shield the dairy sector as countries converted their existing protectionist measures into so-called tariff-rate quotas. Under the new regime, small quantities of imports are allowed in, with sky-high tariffs in place to prevent leakage. The plan was to eventually lower those tariffs and widen the import quotas in future rounds of negotiation. But that hasn't happened because global trade talks fizzled.

Mr. Doyle looks back on those negotiations as one of his crowning achievements. "We gave away some imports, but we maintained our system," he said.

More recently, Mr. Doyle and the DFC have been lobbying vigorously to plug leaks in the protectionist wall around supply management – from threats such as duty-free U.S. cheese-and-pepperoni pizza kits and a growing global trade in concentrated milk protein products. Like the GATT and the WTO before, dairy producing countries, including the U.S. and New Zealand, see the ongoing TPP talks as an opportunity to pry open the Canadian market. Mr. Doyle insisted it won't work and that supply management will survive.

"The logic behind supply management will still be there, and the alternative will not be nice for politicians, consumers or producers," he warned. "It will not be nice for anybody."



Born: Montreal, Que.

Married to Louise Michaud. No children.

Home: Aylmer, Que.

Favourite pastimes: home renovations, tending to his 400-bottle wine cellar, volleyball, curling, cycling and fly fishing.

Education: University of Montreal, bachelor of science in biology.

Favourite cheese: Dragon's Breath blue cheese from Nova Scotia.

All-time favourite book: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett


What he thinks of dairy farmers: "They tell you like it is. They are down to earth and very practical."

On the price of milk: "Milk is almost as cheap as bottled water and soft drinks."

On being a lobbyist: "I'm proud of being a lobbyist. I always wanted to be a lobbyist. We need lobbyists in this country, even though they are not appreciated."

On attacks against supply management by think tanks such as the C.D. Howe Institute and the Conference Board of Canada: "They are trying to influence public policy without ever having to register as lobbyists. I'm not independent. I defend supply management because that's my job, and I believe in it. But I'll never tell you I'm unbiased and independent."

On countries gunning for Canada's protected dairy market: "Most people have something to protect. So no one is free. They talk one way and act another."