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The Lunch

Meet Richard Doyle, the Canadian dairy farmer's champion Add to ...

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.”

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