National | Opinion

Questioning the Process Doesn’t Make You Arrogant

Agriculture columnists and commentators have declared that the debate over barley marketing is over. Agriculture Minister Strahl’s plebiscite results are in, and we should accept them and get over it. One commentator threw down the gauntlet by declaring “anyone suggesting that voters are too stupid, simple or ill informed to make the proper choice is just being arrogant.”

Now that is an interesting comment. If you challenge the results, you are questioning the wisdom of farmers. The fact is though, that questioning the results of Strahl’s plebiscite is not questioning the wisdom of farmers. It is questioning the process of the vote itself. You can’t ignore the fact that the entire process was managed to achieve the desired result. The long list of questionable behavior by the Agriculture Minister leading up to the plebiscite has been thoroughly examined and condemned by the same columnists that now tell us to accept the results and move on.

Believe me, there is a temptation in that. I too am getting a little sick of writing about this issue. The only trouble is, if we just pretend it all never happened, the Minister will do exactly the same things when the inevitable wheat plebiscite comes along, and he will get away with it again.

The argument for accepting the plebiscite results is predicated on the notion that farmers voted as they did based on a sound understanding of the implications of their vote. This implies, among other things, that farmers understand grain marketing and the role of the CWB in it. There are striking examples to show that this is often not true. Rod Flaman and Ken Ritter were both committed anti-CWB activists. They were elected on platforms of doing exactly what Strahl intends to do. After being immersed in the workings of grain markets, both changed their attitudes toward single desk selling, and acknowledged they did not understand the benefits of the single desk before being elected. These were both intelligent, experienced farmers who thought they had it right the first time.

Questioning whether a farmer voted knowing fully the implications of what they were doing is a far cry from calling them “stupid”. The largest number of farmers who voted, chose Strahl’s option two, which presented the option of a “dual market” where farmers could choose “the CWB or any other domestic or foreign buyer”. It is an attractive sounding option, worded as it was in the first person.

However, just because farmers say they want this option does not mean it is possible to have it. In fact, the lineup of folks who say it is not possible is pretty large, including most agricultural economists from the University of Saskatchewan. These are the same folks who train each and every crop of ag college grads, so they are not to be dismissed lightly. If these farmers voted for something that is not possible, did they make the choice they actually wanted to make?

In this regard, the discrepancy between the plebiscite held by the Manitoba government and Strahl’s version is interesting. In the Manitoba vote, farmers were given a clear choice. For barley, the result was that 62 percent of farmers wanted to retain the CWB’s single desk, while 38 percent wanted to market their barley in an open market. In the federal vote, 50 percent of Manitoba farmers supported the single desk, 35 percent supported Strahl’s “dual market” and only 15 percent wanted the CWB gone altogether. So at least ten percent of farmers who did not want to see the end of the CWB’s single desk were convinced that the CWB could exist in a meaningful way in an open market. This meaningful way has yet to be described by those who support ending the single desk.

I know a guy who does polling for a living. He told me there are two kinds of polls. One is the poll where the customer genuinely wants to know something so he hires a pollster to ask some questions designed to provide him with that information. The second type of poll is one where the customer wants a specific result, and wants a poll that will achieve it. In this case, the person designing the questions uses a technique called progressive polling. You administer the questions to a small group. If you don’t get the results you want, you tweak the questions and try again. You keep doing this until you get the answer you wanted.

In this case, the voters are not stupid, just manipulated. And if questioning the manipulation of the Chuck Strahl and the Harper government in regards to the CWB makes me arrogant, then paste the label on me.

Paul Beingessner
About the author

Paul Beingessner

Paul Beingessner was a farmer, an activist, and a writer who defended Canada’s family farms until his tragic death in a farm accident in the spring of 2009. His widely-read and respected weekly columns brought a fresh and progressive perspective to rural and farm issues. Some of them are collected here. Through his words, his insight and wisdom continue to inform, raise important questions and encourage action. Working with Paul's family, the NFU has established an annual literary prize in honour of Paul and his contribution to rural and agricultural journalism.

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