The coming European cheese crisis

The first great challenge of the second session of the 41st Parliament

A day after the greatest throne speech of Chris Alexander’s lifetime, Justin Trudeau appealed everyone to the highest calling.

“It is time—actually, it is well past time—to return to these great stone buildings,” he said, concluding his formal response in the House to the throne speech, “the respect, the dignity, the public trust that they deserve.”

It was time, if nothing else, to get on with the business of this place.

Thomas Mulcair called on the government to initiate an inquiry into the scourge of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, wondered when the Prime Minister would be around to account for the scandals of the government, chided the government for closing veterans’ offices, to which a Conservative MP accused the opposition of wanting to make veterans drive to service offices, and then Mr. Mulcair and Peter MacKay took turns challenging the other to support their respective legislation on cyberbullying.

Mr. Trudeau scorned the government’s economic record, suggested a lack of interest in accountability and then wondered if the Conservatives might be ready to start disclosing their expenses as the Liberals were. Government whip John Duncan stood and unceremoniously said yes. The New Democrats accused the Prime Minister of misleading Parliament as to who knew what about what Nigel Wright did and, in response, Conservative MP Paul Calandra insisted that the government would remain committed to economic expansion. Heritage Minister Shelly Glover wondered if the opposition would “remain silent” about the scourge of bundled cable channels and the NDP’s Megan Leslie asked Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq whether she believes in climate change. There was some discussion about the safe transport of oil by rail. Several references were made to marijuana and, at one point, Mr. Trudeau was accused of favouring the drug trade.

Out in the foyer, Tony Clement would happily pronounce his government “second to none” on openness and transparency in response to a dire report from the information commissioner. And down the hall, the Prime Minister’s appointed government leader in the Senate would stand and explain why he was moving to have three of the Prime Minister’s appointed senators suspended from the upper chamber.

Amid all this was the looming crisis of Canadian cheese. Or, more specifically, the looming crisis of an invasion of European cheese. Sixteen-thousand and eight-hundred metric tonnes of European cheese to be exact.

“Mr. Speaker, Canada’s dairy and cheese industry provides good high-paying middle-class jobs,” the NDP’s Malcolm Allen explained to the House. “Dairy farmers and cheese makers are central to many rural communities across this country. These farmers produce high-quality products at affordable prices without receiving one cent in government subsidy. Why are Conservatives going to jeopardize the livelihood of dairy farmers and cheese makers across this country?”

At issue here is the matter of an apparently impending trade deal with the European Union, particularly the apparently agreed-upon provision for the importation of a total of 30,000 metric tonnes of European cheese without the imposition of tariffs. The Dairy Farmers of Canada are displeased.

At present, a mere 13,200 metric tonnes of European cheese is allowed in tariff-free. This is because of a system known as supply management, a highly debatable measure that is accused of artificially raising the price of cheese for the sake of protecting Canadian dairy farmers.

For whatever reason, supply management is widely supported by federal politicians. Last year, it was the Conservatives accusing the Liberals of not sufficiently supporting supply management. Last February, the Prime Minister lamented that the NDP had forgotten to mention supply management in their election platform.  The Conservatives vowed to defend it in the yesterday’s Throne Speech. And, indeed, even as his side was being accused of undermining it, Pierre Poilievre was claiming that it would be protected.

“Mr. Speaker, all three pillars of supply management are protected, but more than that farmers from across Canada, who are the best in the world, will now have access to over half a billion new hungry customers,” Mr. Poilievre explained this afternoon on behalf of the government side.

Mr. Allen reminded Mr. Poilievre of the Prime Minister’s stated support for supply management. Mr. Poilievre repeated that the pillars of supply management were being protected, even as the market for Canadian cheese was being expanded. “This is jobs; this is hope; this is opportunity,” Mr. Poilievre enthused.

The NDP’s Ruth Ellen Brosseau was apparently unconvinced. “Mr. Speaker, they are disconnected from the reality of Quebec,” she charged. “The Quebec cheese industry is growing. It provides good jobs, often in rural areas who need these economic drivers, in addition to providing Canadians with delicious cheeses.”

Mr. Poilievre chose to think of all the Italians and Swedes who might enjoy Canadian cheddar. “This is 500 million hungry customers waiting to buy Canadian agricultural products,” he cheered. “It is an enormous victory for our farmers.”

And so we come to the first new challenge of this second session of the 41st Parliament of Canada. Can we have both hope and delicious Canadian cheeses? Or must we choose between the two?

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