Farmtario editor John Greig posed five farm-policy-related questions to representatives of the Progressive Conservative, Liberal, New Democrat and Green parties. (Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length)
The respondents were:
- Progressive Conservative: Monte McNaughton, MPP Lambton-Kent-Middlesex
- Liberal: Jeff Leal, MPP Peterborough
- New Democrat: John Vanthof, MPP Temiskaming Cochrane
- Green: Mike Schreiner, Ontario Green Party leader
Q: What is your party’s policy on the Risk Management Program, which the province has continued to fund without federal participation?
Liberal: The reason we brought in the $100-million Risk Management Program and why it is our base going forward is two things: when we went through the BSE crisis in 2003-04, it had a devastating impact on the cattle industry in Ontario; and on the advice of Grain Farmers of Ontario, with the fluctuations of commodity trade on Chicago exchange on corn or soybeans, we wanted to backstop commodity fluctuation. We are going forward with the announced review of the Risk Management Program to make sure each of those $100 million is well spent and it continues to be a backstop.
PC: Obviously, the current government is doing a review of the RMP cap, but we’ve said we will increase RMP cap by $50 million and allow unused portions to roll over to the next year. This came about from working with different farm organizations and stakeholders who were advocating for unused portions to roll over to the next year and to increase the cap.
NDP: When the Risk Management Program was implemented, it was designed in partnership with ag commodity groups and government and it was one of the best programs ever designed. But it had a cap of $100 million. One of the benefits lost, was that it was bankable and predictable. We are proposing to lift the cap by $50 million, one year in, and to $175 million in year three, four and five.
Green: We definitely support continued funding of the Risk Management Program regardless of whether the federal government steps up to the plate. We want to make sure it is easily accessible for all farm operations large, small, conventional and organic.
Q: How do you respond to farmers’ concerns that the high-speed rail proposal in its current form (following the power lines from London to Kitchener) would split farms, communities and have a negative impact on emergency services?
Liberal: We have to continue to consult every available group and individual farmers, certainly who are part of that route. One of the things we have to be extremely sensitive about is if the proposed route separates farm properties in two. We can’t consult enough on this program.
PC: I certainly agree with them. I’ve long advocated that the government needs to do proper consultation with farmers and rural municipalities. I wrote to Premier Wynne last year asking that farm groups have representation on the committee. The government needs to slow down and make sure they get this right and farm voices need to be heard. We’ve said we’ll continue funding the Environmental Assessment and we will take a more consultative approach and will bring different stakeholders together to make sure that if it is feasible and if it proceeds, it will be done properly.
NDP: During the AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) conference I spoke to the mayors of Woodstock and Ingersoll and I have spoken to farmers. They have a valid concern. Farmers need to be fully engaged in the planning process. This would be one of the biggest construction projects completed in the province and we have to protect farmland. High-speed trains have been built in other parts of the world. There have got to be solutions in other places that are workable.
Green: I share concerns farmers have in terms of existing high-speed rail route. We certainly need more consultation and thought going into any high-speed rail route. I’m a big supporter of prioritizing high performance train and bus connections. Use current rail lines much more efficiently and effectively. There are a lot of low hanging fruit for improving transportation. I still support high-speed rail over the long term, but in the meantime let’s not use the long-term promise of high-speed rail to prevent provincial investment in high performance rail and intercity bus connections.
Q: The current government’s minimum wage increases have strained farms that rely on seasonal, minimum wage labour to plant and harvest the crop. What is your government’s policy on the minimum wage and potential impact mitigation strategies for farmers?
Liberal: As part of the fall economic statement as minister of agriculture, I announced the $40-million horticulture program. That’s because the horticulture sector is the area where a high preponderance of people making minimum wage work as part of the Ontario agriculture sector. I wanted to make sure support was in place to encourage research and innovation to offset and mitigate some of the increase in minimum wage, to keep that sector at the forefront as it is now.
PC: When the minimum wage went up from $11.60 to $14 per hour in January, Ontario lost 50,000 jobs. Last month we lost 8,800 manufacturing jobs. We warned the government there would be unintended consequences from job losses, to hours reductions for workers, to price increases. We would keep it at $14, but strike a balance. For anyone earning $29,000 and less per year, we would eliminate the income tax.
NDP: Just off the top, we are in favour of a $15 minimum wage. I believe the impact would be less if the government had implemented it on a more planned basis. It’s made it very hard for some sectors to compete, with especially farmers who can’t summarily raise prices or like the horticulture sector competing with other jurisdictions with lower wages. The Liberals dropped small business taxes, but it’s not enough.
Green: I share concerns farmers have, and lot of small businesses have, on the minimum wage. We’re looking for a win-win strategy for workers, so they have a living income, but we’d also lower payroll taxes by raising the employer health tax exemption to $1 million to provide some cash flow relief and so businesses can better able afford an increasing minimum wage.
Q: Has your party adopted any of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s Producing Prosperity themes for rural economic development? If so which ones?
Liberal: Over the last four years, we have been pursuing all the elements of the OFA’s prosperity plan. We announced an additional $71-million investment in broadband, to finalize and fill in the gaps that exist for high speed internet. It is a key tool for the province of Ontario. We continue to make key investments in the processing side. One of our things as our hallmark, is the ability to emphasize research and innovation, and importantly, on value-added jobs side with export opportunities around the world. We’ve had the $100-million program on natural gas. We announced a couple of months ago some recipients of that. Particularly important is one we did in Chatham-Kent for the greenhouse industry.
PC: We’ve worked closely with the OFA and other farm organizations. We would invest in rural regions and create opportunities here for jobs and growth. We are committed to fully restoring Ontario Municipal Partnership funding to rural municipalities and let them spend money on infrastructure or lowering taxes. We have long advocated for the expansion of rural natural gas. We’ve committed to that with $100 million and, safe to say, hundreds of millions in expansion of rural broadband. One thing I’ve advocated for, as have other southwestern Ontario PC MPPs, is another food terminal. We feel if there was one in southwestern Ontario or eastern Ontario, there would be opportunities for local restaurant chains to purchase locally grown food from Ontario farmers.
NDP: We’ve always consulted pretty closely with OFA. When they came out with the new strategy, and quite frankly at the start, it was a bit confusing because usually when agriculture organizations come to lobby at Queen’s Park, it is strictly on agriculture issues. This is broad based and fits well with what we believe should happen in rural Ontario. We’ve promised $100-million for broadband, so kids can actually do homework and people can run small businesses in rural Ontario. We’ll look at the funding formula for education. Rural schools are the centrepiece of rural communities.
Green: Our party is very much in line with the Producing Prosperity agenda the OFA put out. We’re supporters of rural broadband. The electricity grid was essential to building prosperity in the 20th century. Broadband internet is the equivalent in the 21st century. We would put a moratorium on school closures until we fix the school funding program brought in by Conservatives and that the Liberals have not fixed. On natural gas, I’m a supporter of bringing in more natural gas infrastructure, but I should be really clear, we’ve been embracing innovation and sources of green gas or renewal gas. We don’t want to see fracked natural gas going to our gas lines.
Q: What other policies are in your platform that you would like Ontario’s farmers to know about?
Liberal: One of my great missions in life is to make sure every Ontarian knows about the $37.5 billion in economic value from agri-food, with 800,000 employed, predicated on 50,000 family farmers. If you’re looking for a great career, this will be the sector to be in in the 21st century, and we’ll pursue broad-based policies to make that happen.
PC: One of the top ones is reducing energy bills and fixing the Hydro mess the Liberals created. The Green Energy Act should be scrapped. We would halt any new wind projects going forward and return some municipal control. One other thing for rural Ontario: we’re the only party that is ensuring all hunting and fishing licence fees will be spent on wildlife conservation.
NDP: I’ve been pushing for a long time to help young farmers get into the industry. When I started farming, my biggest roadblock was a loan guarantee on my first farm. On a more personal level, one thing I’m very focused on is that people talk about consulting with farmers, but in the past they have not really paid attention to how to do that. The neonic regulation consultations were held in same time as seeding, so they were not very serious about consulting.
Green: We’re very strong supporters of promoting Ontario food and farmers. We want the government to actually take some action on the Local Food Act. We would require minimum food purchasing targets for public institutions for local food to support local farmers. We would make sure we have a local food processing support fund in place. We recognize the essential role that medium-sized food processors play in processing and getting Ontario-farmed products to market.