REPORT: Silos of excellence webinar

On September 23, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss the most effective ways to advocate in meetings with federal ministers, and whether Canada’s plethora of industry groups is the right approach versus a single unified voice. The panelists were:

  • Bob Friesen, Past President and VP of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, member of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
  • Andy Mitchell, PC, former minister of AAFC in the governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points.

Opening comments

Mitchell. Advocacy is central to the development of policy. Without it, ministers would not have the information they need. There are three key points to effective messaging:

  1. Quality trumps quantity. Concise, well-presented information is welcomed.
  2. Expertise trumps politics. We need to know your expert opinion, not the colour of your politics.
  3. Relationship trumps rhetoric. Relationships build trust and a rapport that makes the messaging more than just words.

Advocacy is about getting information from experts so you can test hypotheses. Organizations need to be effective, prepared, professional, knowledgeable and have a few key messages. Messaging should ask for what the government has power to achieve. Make sure the ask is clear. Too often it isn’t. Blue-sky requests waste everybody’s time. Understand the difference between policy and politics, again to avoid wasting time. Be prepared to listen but let the minister’s team talk because that’s how you gain intelligence.

Friesen. I agree with the above. Often, meetings with the minister feel like a conversation. That’s not what these meetings are about. They are for a precise policy issue or an ask. Also, we tend to forget that government is not there for us to right. Collaboration is the best approach.

Thousands of organizations represent agrifood, of which 1,200 are registered to lobby. Is that too many? Is it effective?

Mitchell. Too many voices can be a problem but agriculture is complex and operates at a number of levels, so it’s not surprising that there are so many. It’s useful to deal with umbrella organizations that represent others at a national level. Not all organizations take the same view because some issues don’t have common ground. Those umbrella organizations play a role in trying to build that consensus. That process is critical. Again, the message is what’s important, not the size of the organization.

Friesen. The number of organizations doesn’t necessarily mean the sector is divided. Some of them are sector-specific or commodity specific or speak to specific policy issues. When an issue transcends a sector or commodity, that’s when organizations should collaborate. When I was President of the CFA, our approach was not to speak on commodity issues unless we had a position that endorsed it. The current president has done an excellent job of reaching out to non-CFA members, even internationally, to collaborate and agree on messaging.

Farmers are funding a plethora of CEOs and Executive Directors. It’s a lot of overhead to carry, and farmers are confused as to whom to send their dollars to.

Mitchell. Organizations need clear lines of communications and accountability. I don’t believe that’s a problem with CFA members or many other organizations. However, they have to communicate to their members what they stand for, and how they fit in the larger agenda. And at the end of the day, farmers choose whom they support.

There’s a concern that umbrella organization have a long list of issues. Do you get a sense that umbrella organizations have trade-offs on what is presented to ministers?

Mitchell. If it’s a broad policy issue, then an umbrella organization like CFA makes sense, especially if it has worked to build consensus already. But for a commodity issue, you want to hear from a commodity organization. It’s never a good idea to go to a minister’s meeting with a list of priorities because it looks like nothing is a priority. So both types of organization are important.

Friesen. Ministers can’t deliver on everything so it is the responsibility of organizations to prioritize. Another thing to note is that ministers have to go ask for the money. For a while we had brutal net farm incomes, and always wanted funding—but we were sensitive to the fact that the minister has to sit at a Cabinet table where every minister is asking for money for their issues.

Trade policy is an example of commodity vs general issues. I had turkeys and pigs on my own farm. Both have different trade policy interests. So if I said to Andy (Mitchell) that I didn’t care about supply management, I just want more market for pigs, Andy can’t advocate for just one sector. As minister, he must negotiate for all agriculture so that all farmers are better off. It amazes me that commodity groups meet the minister, hammer in their interests, and think the minister believes nobody else matters. That’s not how it works. Collaboration works.

Is there a fear that when you collaborate, is there a concern that some of the expertise or individuality of the case will be lost? Collaboration is great but how do you see beyond that to ensure all voices are well represented?

Friesen. There’s no fear of losing individuality. I would ask the Canadian Pork Council, What is your issue? Do you want us to weigh in on it in public? They would let us know the commodity messaging. If the issue was general, they and all the other commodity groups brought expertise. We have ten provincial farm organizations all doing the same thing we’re trying to achieve nationally.

Mitchell. When I got to Cabinet, I worked with the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray who had been around a long time. He said something that stuck with me: When you go into the Cabinet room and insist on your way, and others do too, none of you get anything any of the time. That shows the importance of building consensus—because if you can get 80% of what you need 80% of the time, you’re probably successful.

Was the research agenda a top priority when groups came to see you?

Mitchell. I believe that pushing the research and innovation agenda on broad pillars is more effective than narrowly, by commodity. Examples of a broad approach would be increasing yield, environmental protection, production processes. These are more effective and easily actionable.

Another way to encourage collaboration is to reward it in research proposals. There’s only a finite amount of money in the federal pot, so collaboration leverages that funding to make it go farther. That’s what we like to see.

Posted in Industry.