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Bernier wants to scrap it, but poll suggests majority of Conservative voters back supply management

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Three of every four Canadians polled said they approved of the agricultural system, the survey shows.

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier is thought to be the frontrunner in the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party, set to be decided this weekend. Mr. Bernier has campaigned on a promise to phase out supply management for agricultural products. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Libertarians, despair: a new poll shows support for Canada’s supply management system, even if Canadians are told it takes a toll on their pocket-books.

Three of every four Canadians polled said they approved when asked to evaluate the agricultural system, described as follows: “Canada protects its dairy and poultry industries from foreign imports with tariffs and price supports. Do you approve or disapprove of this?”

Just 12 per cent disapproved and 13 per cent said they didn’t know in the online poll of 1,969 adult Canadians, conducted by Toronto’s Campaign Research, a polling firm led by CEO Eli Yufest, principal Richard Ciano, a former national vice-president of the Conservative Party of Canada, and principal Nick Kouvalis, a former campaign manager for Conservative MP and leadership candidate Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.)

The poll was conducted between May 9 and 13, part of a larger survey on multiple subjects, according to Mr. Yufest. Some of the questions in the larger survey were designed for clients, but those related to supply management and softwood lumber were not, he said. Those questions were included in the poll because of the impending NAFTA renegotiation with the United States, he said. 

Supply management is a system used to control price and production of Canadian dairy, chicken, turkey, eggs, and hatching eggs. It has enjoyed support from all of the major federal political parties in recent years, despite opposition from some free-market proponents and many of Canada’s trading partners interested in exporting those products to the Canadian market.

However, the current perceived frontrunner in the Conservative leadership race, MP Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), has been a vocal opponent of supply management, vowing to phase it out, with compensation for supply-managed farmers, if given the chance.

Mr. Bernier has raised the most money in the race and opinion polls have him leading the 12 other contenders, though the way the voting works makes it tricky to be certain he’s a shoo-in to win. The winner will be announced on the evening of May 27 in Toronto.

Mr. Bernier is the only candidate who has come out against supply management so directly.

The Campaign Research poll did not use the term “supply management” in its questions, but did find widespread support for the system described in the question above. Approval ranged between 72 and 77 per cent across age groups and genders. Approval was weakest in Alberta and the rest of the Prairies, at 66 per cent each, and strongest in Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area, at 77 per cent each.

The term “supply management” was not used in order to make it easier for the average person to understand, said Mr. Yufest.

Notwithstanding Mr. Bernier’s popularity, 73 per cent of self-identified Conservative voters said they approved, compared with 79 per cent of Liberal voters, and 79 per cent of those who supported the NDP.

Opponents of supply management have long argued that it has created higher prices for dairy, poultry, and eggs than in countries with free-market systems. The poll quizzed respondents on that argument, but still found majority, albeit weaker, approval across demographics for the system.

Respondents to the poll were asked: “Canada’s protection of its dairy and poultry industries means Canadians pay more for milk, cheese, chicken, and eggs than Americans do. Do you approve or disapprove of trade protection for dairy and poultry?”

Fifty-four per cent of those polled across Canada said they approved of that protection, versus 32 per cent who disapproved, and 14 per cent who said they did not know. Approval was strongest among those aged 18 to 24, at 63 per cent, and weakest among those aged 45 to 54, at 50 per cent.

Regionally, support for the protection described in the question was strongest in British Columbia and the GTA, with 57 per cent approval, and weakest in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, at 46 per cent.

Exactly half of Conservative supporters said they approved of the agricultural protection described as more expensive, versus 40 per cent who disapproved, and 10 per cent who didn’t know. The splits for Liberal supporters were 60/28/12, and for NDP supporters were 61/27/13.

Online polls are not considered to be truly random, but a random poll with the same total sample size would have a margin of error of plus or minus two per cent, 19 times out of 20. Margins of error would be higher for categories measuring support by federal voting intention, or region, for instance, because they have smaller sample sizes.

Online polls randomly pull participants from large groups of people who have signed up to participate in polling research for compensation.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada, an industry group that lobbies to promote and defend supply management, objected to the poll’s description of the supply management system, particularly the second question that said it was more expensive for consumers.

Communications director Isabelle Bouchard called the question “misleading,” and argued that Canadian prices for dairy products were similar to those in non-supply managed countries such as the United States and New Zealand, both of which have pressured Canada to scrap its supply management system during trade negotiations.

“In Canada, you only pay for those products if you buy them. In America, as long as you pay income taxes, you pay for them,” said Ms. Bouchard, referring to U.S. government subsidies for the dairy sector.

Mr. Yufest responded to Ms. Bouchard’s objections by saying he believed it was “well documented” that in-store prices in the U.S. were lower for grocery items covered by supply management in Canada.

Canadians dispute U.S. softwood complaints

The poll also found that more Canadians disagreed that the softwood lumber industry is unfairly subsidized than agreed that it was.

Canada is locked in another trade battle with the United States over Canadian exports of softwood lumber, used in housing construction, to that country. American lumber producers are arguing, as they have for decades, that Canadian competitors are essentially subsidized by provincial governments that allow them to harvest trees from Crown land for below-market fees. Canada’s governments have disputed that, often with the support of international legal tribunals.

The poll found that just 17 per cent of respondents said they agreed when asked the following question: “The U.S. claims our softwood lumber industry is unfairly subsidized, through low cutting fees charged on Crown land and Canada’s social support network. Do you agree or disagree Canada’s softwood lumber industry is unfairly subsidized compared to the U.S.?”

Forty-eight per cent of respondents disagreed, while 35 per cent said they did not know. Significantly more respondents disagreed than agreed among all age groups, income brackets, regions, and supporters of different political parties.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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