By Patrick Meagher
It seems that with every election farmers grumble that Ontario’s largest farm organization is far too political, too cosy with the Ontario Liberal Party.
We heard it again over the neonicotinoid battle against the province. It got so heated the Grain Farmers of Ontario discussed pulling out of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), with its 37,000-farm membership, because some grain farmers argued the OFA was not standing up for farmers.
There are also social media posts, including this recent post on the OFA website: “Why is it that OFA is a sustainable yearly donor to the Ontario Liberal Party and no others? Our farm leaders are way too political. We need to be organized into a rally to fight unfair power charges.”
How right or wrong is this perception? Let’s look at direct donations to political parties. The amount is zero, according to OFA general manager Neil Currie. But the OFA does pay to go to fundraisers, he said.
“Typically, we go to fundraisers of all three parties,” Currie said. “It’s more for Liberals because the Liberals are in power and you have to go to fundraisers to get noticed.”
He added that the OFA sends someone to opposition fundraisers as well, pointing to Conservative ag critic Ernie Hardeman’s annual fundraiser and to PC MPP Toby Barrett’s barbecue. “He always has a great fish fry.”
An organization is allowed to donate up to $9,975 to each political party but Currie said the amount the OFA pays in fundraisers annually to all three parties in total is probably “well under that.”
He also noted: “We’re always accused of being too close to the party in power.”
The OFA’s financial statement reports that for the year ending Aug. 31, the OFA spent $13,975 on donations and contributions. The year before they spent $23,268.
So, why not make public how much is spent on fundraisers and to which parties? “There’s no huge demand for it” and “I don’t want to get the accountants to work for three hours to break it out,” Currie said.
When asked how many requests it would take for the OFA to break out the numbers, he replied: “No one’s ever asked for it before.”
Farmers Forum checked with Elections Ontario for the lastest available stats. For 2013, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture donated $696 to the Ancaster riding of Liberal Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin. That same year, the OFA donated $199 to the Progressive Conservative Oxford riding of ag critic Ernie Hardeman.
Also that year, the OFA donated $3,450 to the Ontario Liberal Party and $1,605 to the NDP. But, according to Elections Ontario, the OFA gave nothing to the Progressive Conservative Party.
Former OFA president Mark Wales said the OFA “routinely goes to fundraisers. It’s standard lobbying. It’s a foot in the door” that often allows OFA members to meet up to six to nine senior members of government and the leader. The OFA pays more attention to the party in power, particularly when it’s a majority government “but it’s as balanced as it can be.”
Current OFA president Don McCabe said OFA donations have no reflection on the hard work of the organization.
McCabe, who also sits on a provincial climate advisory group, says he is not paid by the province for his work “nor have I been promised any political appointment” but says he submits mileage and hotel expenses to the province.
“The reality is that we are very close to the Liberals. We are close to the Conservatives, we are close to the NDP because that’s our job,” he said, acknowledging that the accusation of Liberal bias is out there.
History doesn’t help. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien made an announcement on the steps of former OFA president Geri Kamenz’s farmhouse. You only do that for friends.
One anecdote of one OFA member with Liberal ties does not make an argument. But compounding anecdotal evidence does evoke suspicions.
During the 2011 Ontario election campaign, the OFA wanted a moratorium on wind projects but didn’t want to address it with the Ontario Liberals because, by an OFA director’s own admission, the OFA didn’t want to affect the election outcome. What lobby group doesn’t use an election to push its points? Was that a ridiculous omission or partisan politics? Regardless, it leads to questions.
The OFA has only itself to blame for the perception of bias that’s out there.
Is OFA too close to the Liberal Party?
By Patrick Meagher