By Connor Lynch
Conservative MP and a leading contender for the federal conservative leadership race, Maxime Bernier, has drawn the ire of dairy farmers with his repeated and unflinching calls to end supply management.
The hard-line fiscal libertarian has drawn sharp looks, harsh words and possibly renewed interest in party memberships, with dairy farmers in Ontario and Quebec calling on other farmers in March to get a membership to vote against Bernier, before party membership registration closed on March 28. Bernier shot back, calling one-issue members “fake” conservatives and has repeatedly defended both his opposition to supply management and his chances of selling that opposition to Canadians.
His campaign got a major boost on April 26, after Kevin O’Leary announced he would be dropping out of the leadership race and threw his support behind Bernier.
O’Leary was one of the three front-runners of the race, alongside Bernier and Speaker of the House Andrew Scheer.
In his home rural riding of Beauce in Quebec, south of Quebec City, Bernier has clinched the vote four times. If he can sell an end to supply management there, he argued at an open house in Guelph recently, he can sell it across the country.
Quebec holds more dairy quota than any other province in Canada.
Shawville, Que., dairy farmer Robbie Beck told Farmers Forum that Bernier’s brazen assault on supply management won’t win him any friends among Quebec dairy producers but could sway votes his way in urban centres.
“If you’re uninformed, it sounds good,” he said. “Get rid of supply management, pay half price at the store.”
Beck added that coming out strongly against the system early in the race was also likely a tactic for Bernier to distinguish himself from other candidates. But the fact that he can use it as a tactic just speaks to the growing rural-urban divide, Beck said.
Western Ontario dairy farmer Lindsey Heimstra tweeted late last year: “If you’re a dairy/feather farmer or industry supporter, register & vote in the CPC election to keep Bernier from destroying Canada’s SM farms.”
“I’m more concerned about Bernier than Trump,” Osgoode dairy farmer Steve Velthuis told Farmers Forum.
Bernier, who was Minister of State (Small Business and Tourism) under Stephen Harper, raised some eyebrows when he came out so definitively against supply management.
As a minister in a government that was explicitly pro-supply management, Bernier explained his previous defence of supply management as a political necessity, telling the Financial Post last year that “I was not in a position to question the party’s democratic decision, or cabinet solidarity . . . even though I had grave misgivings about it for all these years.
“It is a cartel. It is the opposite of free markets. Why should we change this system? Because it is inefficient and fundamentally unfair to Canadian consumers and to our farmers,” Bernier went on to say.
He advocates a phase out of supply management with a quota buy-back coupled with a milk tax to pay for it.
The Bernier camp has also said that Bernier has a net gain among Conservative supporters in rural Canada in spite of opposition from dairy farmers.
Another leadership candidate has taken issue with Bernier. MP Steven Blaney (CON-Bellechase–Les Etchemines–Levis), also just south of Quebec City, quoted a report from Nielsen, an American company that tracks market information and consumer trends, that pegged the price of American milk at $1.65 per litre, compared to a Canadian average is $1.48.
Blaney argued that abandoning supply management would push the price of domestic milk even higher.
A packed field of candidates present a tactical problem for dairy farmers opposing Bernier. Dunnville dairy farmer Harm Kelly tweeted: “Hey dairy folks, Bernier will win if pro-SM voters split vote between 13 other candidates. As important to mobilize behind 1 as vote against 1.”
The federal Conservative leadership vote takes place on May 27.