Business & Policy
The Back Page: May 2013
By Roy Maxwell
Trade Talks and Media Attacks
By Roy Maxwell
In the spring of 1989, I glanced at a job ad in The Globe and Mail for a communications person, and then I saw the word chicken. The Ontario Chicken Producers’ Marketing Board (OCPMB) was looking for someone to “raise the profile and improve the image of the OCPMB.” I applied, got the job, and spent the next 16 years explaining, defending and promoting supply management in the poultry industry.
There was a reason supply management suddenly wanted communications people, and the reason was trade. The Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was heating up and the media were asking a lot of questions. The Board realized that the days of quietly going about the business of producing food in supply management were coming to an end. There would soon be a lot of noise about “orderly marketing” and the outcome of the GATT negotiations was poised to change everything.
With the stroke of a pen, the GATT agreement was signed and Article XI, which provided the ability to control imports on a quantitative basis, was dead. We could no longer close the door to imports when predetermined market access levels were reached.
Under the new rules, the door was to stay open, but tariffs could be used beyond that point to prevent destruction of supply management and the industry. Media organizations rarely mention the fact that high tariffs aren’t used until a tremendous amount of product has already entered the country, essentially tariff-free. They also neglect to mention that both the quantity of tariff-free imports and the level of tariffs beyond that point were negotiated. They were not just invented and implemented, but were agreed to.
There is nothing new about columnists in the media attacking marketing boards. Do you remember the series of Globe and Mail columns in the early 1990s, written by Terence Corcoran before he moved to the National Post? He liked to begin his attacks with “moo, moo, cluck, cluck.”
As a columnist, he was free to express his opinions, but the trouble was he based many of his opinions on things that we at the marketing board felt were untrue.
So, we sent a letter to the editor-in-chief, William Thorsell, because the issue was no longer about supply management.
Instead, it was now about “irresponsible journalism.” After all, if the Globe insisted on repeating what we felt were factual errors about supply management, why should we trust anything else in that publication?
How we would know if it was true or not? Thus, we requested a meeting with the Globe’s editorial board.
Thorsell stated in a letter that our accusation about irresponsible journalism was a very serious charge. I wrote back, agreed with him, and asked when we could meet. That finally did it. There was no response and the Globe stopped writing about supply management for a good two years.
For the past couple of years, I have been monitoring the media for Dairy Farmers of Ontario. As you well know, media attacks have been vicious and relentless, often including words such as “price-fixing” and “racketeering.”
Unfortunately, these attacks can also be a problem for government because journalists often link government support to political weakness. That’s why it is important for poultry and dairy farmers to continue meeting with their elected members, whether provincial or federal, and show their support or frustration. Some have submitted letters to editors or written opinion pieces in response to the barrage of attacks on supply management.
In the midst of all the negative and critical comments, there have been other articles and reports that treat the trade and supply management story with respect and fairness. Those people tend to be reporters, not columnists.
After reading hundreds of stories, there is one comment I heard on television that I would like to share in case you missed it. The comment was made by one of the most outspoken critics of supply management when he was talking about writing columns and being a commentator.
On June 6, 2012, while being interviewed by CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne said, “My job is a fraud. Let’s be frank, right? I’m supposed to be this instant expert on every subject under the sun. So, it is always a bit of a high-wire act . . . So, yes, there is always an element of fraud in this.”
How refreshing is that? I say, take heart and take action.