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- by Anne Finlay-Stewart, Editor

Ernie Hardeman, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs committed to preserving the Greenbelt  this morning in Owen Sound. He  was here to conduct a roundtable conversation with local agriculture representatives about cutting red tape.

hardemanHardeman was Minister of Agriculture in the Mike Harris government from 1999 to 2001 during the years of the Red Tape Commission.

The media was excluded from most of the meeting, and the media scrum afterwards was cut off before I could ask a single question, but here is what I gleaned.

Paul McQueen, mayor of Grey Highlands and owner of a cow/calf operation there, asked about incentives for young people to take on farming. Hardeman replied that we all need to be “more vigilant in telling people about the things you can do in rural communities and small towns.” Governments, he said, need to create an environment that brings young people to rural Ontario, encourages them to start small businesses and stay.

RJ Taylor made a pitch for the importance of protecting water quality. Taylor, of Cedar Crest Trout Farm in Hanover, was speaking on behalf of the fish farming industry which he says now exceeds the volume of all the commercial catch in Ontario waters.

Bruce County farmer and Ontario Federation of Agriculture director Pat Jileson commended the PC government on actions it has taken and promised, particularly rural access to natural gas and broadband. He emphasized the importance of support for rural schools, reiterating that “what is good for rural Ontario is good for farmers.”

Former Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Murdoch introduced the subject of the upcoming carbon tax, and although it was mentioned that diesel and propane had been exempted the tax was essentially defined as a bad policy that disproportionately affected rural residents and farmers.

When current MPP Bill Walker brought up the government's plan to sell off surplus real estate in the province, one participant made a plea for retaining the Ontario Food Terminal. Minister Hardeman said its potential for relocation was being studied as it is on a very valuable property with no room for expansion and “trucks can't get in and out”.

One local representative said he felt that as many as 90% of the people of Ontario do not care what happens in agriculture. He encouraged the government and farm organizations to work in partnership on a “public trust strategy” so that all Ontarians would fight alongside farners in their mutual interests. Hardeman said he thought the public trust in agriculture was very high “as long as there are no bad news stories coming out of our industry.”

Following the meeting, Minister Hardeman told the media that the purpose of the invitation-only meeting was to learn from representatives of farm organizations what regulations are standing in the way of their productivity and growth. “Things that protect people are not red tape”, he said, but cited the example of the height of the delivery door at Saugeen Country Yogurt as unnecessary regulation - “paperwork that has no purpose or benefit; forms you fill out that noone ever looks at.” The PC government has committed to cutting these regulations by an arbitrary 25 percent, according to Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker, and reviewing duplication with federal rules.

Hardeman gave an example of what he had heard before we were in the room: agribusiness want easier access to more foreign labour - and a speedier process. He said the PCs would be pushing the federal government on streamlining the foreign worker process. The same businesses want a faster approval process for housing for these workers.

Although he said he was unaware of any doubt about Premier Ford's position on the subject, Hardeman insisted “The Greenbelt will definitely not be opened up. It will be protected in its entirety. This was the promise we were elected on.”

In spite of the interest in improving broader public trust, the closed-door meeting included only two women as participants, and as far as we know no mention was made of immigration, jobs for newcomers, or climate change.

This government is going to have to take a wider view of “the people” and their concerns if it hopes to bridge the trust gap with both urban and rural Ontarians.


 

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