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Dean Tester: The best way to support animal welfare is to end corporate welfare

Commentary

I grew up in a meat and potatoes household in rural northern Ontario.

I am a lifelong conservative, and I have spent my entire professional career trying to elect conservatives across Canada.

I am also a vegan.

My conservative friends are often confused about this, almost as much as my vegan friends. But there is a strong case to be made for animal welfare as a part of the conservative creed.

The U.K. Conservatives won a massive majority victory in 2019 and their election manifesto included a number of promises that would be absolutely shocking to Canadian politicians.

Their “animal welfare manifesto” included, among other things:

  • A ban on the live exports of animals for fattening or for slaughter.
  • New laws recognizing animal sentience.
  • A crack down on puppy mills and illegal dog/puppy smuggling.
  • The toughest anti-trophy hunting laws in the world.
  • Mandatory cat microchipping.

Not only did they campaign on animal welfare, they outflanked their progressive opponents. Since the election, they have established an animal rights caucus and a Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.

Though it was not the defining issue of the campaign, it undoubtedly helped their cause. Conservatives in the U.K., much like Canada’s Conservatives, struggle with younger, female, suburban and urban voters. The compassionate campaign for animal welfare opened a lot of eyes, and encouraged voters to take a look at their policies when they otherwise might not have.

If Conservative leader Erin O’Toole wants to win the next election, he needs to find a way to reach suburban voters — so why not start with animal welfare?

In addition to the proposals made by the U.K. Conservatives, here is how we live our conservative values and reduce the harm we cause to animals in Canada.

Personal Freedom

When it comes to personal freedom, I believe the Conservatives should stand for more, not less. That is why I am not going to argue that we should ban meat, impose a tax on meat, or otherwise restrict personal choices when it comes to food. In fact, I would suggest the opposite.

People should be free to eat what they want, and they should be able to make their own decisions about the health, environmental, moral, and economic impacts of meat.

But rather than letting consumers make their own choices, the government keeps putting its thumb on the scale to promote meat and dairy. According to one estimate using OECD numbers, meat and dairy farmers receive 89 percent of all agricultural subsidies in Canada — and that’s before we even consider the socialist price fixing scheme we call “supply management.”

On average, Canada spends about $3.4 billion in corporate welfare to the meat and dairy sectors every single year.

Despite these subsidies, more and more Canadians are deciding to eat less meat and dairy. Innovation is making alternatives like Beyond Meat more affordable and tastier, which is what most people base their food choices on. And people are becoming more educated about the health and environmental impacts of meat and dairy, which is driving them to try to make better choices for themselves and for their planet.

So my plea to conservatives is this: why not let the market decide?

Canadians can decide what they want to eat. And farmers can sell their products without billions in subsidies and we will see who is willing to pay the true cost of meat.

Corporate Welfare

One of the biggest promises made by O’Toole in the Conservative leadership race was a pledge to end corporate welfare.

If he meant what he said, a great place to start would be the billions handed out to the huge mega-corporations that dominate the animal agriculture industry.

The family farm only really exists in advertising these days. For example, three meat-packing plants process 85 percent of Canada’s beef.

Supply management claims to protect the family farm, and yet the number of dairy farms in Canada has shrunk from over 140,000 when supply management was introduced, to roughly 10,000 today. According to a report from Maclean’s, as of 2016, the average dairy producer had a net worth of $5 million, and the average producer was making $160,000 per year after expenses.

Conservatives should get serious and stop taking orders from powerful lobbyists. End the corporate bailouts and let these industries stand on their merits.

O’Toole has even shown some inclination to do this on environmental policy. During the leadership race, his platform temporarily included a pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies before the predictable outrage caused him to change his mind.

Ending corporate welfare for big emitters — including the animal agriculture industry — could be the centrepiece of a winning environmental plan for the Conservatives.

Time for Change

It is hard to claim you support small government and free markets and simultaneously support a socialist price-fixing scheme introduced by Pierre Trudeau.

It is equally hard to declare your support for ending corporate welfare while screaming from the mountaintops about how farmers do not get big enough bailouts from the Liberals.

As O’Toole said in his Conservative convention keynote, it is time for Conservatives to be bold and change with the times.

So my plea to the Conservatives on animal welfare is simple: embrace your core values. Support personal freedom in food choice. Support free markets and an end to corporate welfare.

And support the dignity of life — including for animals, who deserve far better than the inhumane treatment suffered in factory farms.

Mitchell Davidson: How to fix post-secondary policy after COVID

Commentary

When the pandemic began there was a tendency to think it would change everything forever, post-secondary policy included.

Historians, charged with a sudden and immediate relevance, looked to pandemics past for clues about what the future might hold.

Do not fret about the end of post-secondary institutions, history taught us. After the bubonic plague only five of the roughly 30 universities in Europe ceased operations. In fact, many of those universities still exist to this very day, carrying out the same traditions and structures from their pre-Middle Ages founding.

But then, as with nearly every subject area in the pandemic, the common understanding of COVID-19’s impact evolved into a force that would accelerate pre-existing trends. All sorts of trends come to mind, from the rise of online classes to the movement away from theory-based education in favour of practical skills-based labour market studies. In some corners of the internet, you can even stumble across talk of the end of tenure or the consolidation of post-secondary institutions.

The idea of an external force causing the rapid acceleration of change in the post-secondary system is nearly impossible to fathom. The institutions, by their very design, are methodical and slow to evolve, prioritizing research methods and foundational learning over skills training in-demand by employers.

In 1852, English historian Sir Richard Walpole suggested that a family would “hesitate to spend £1,000 or £1,200 which Oxford education involved, in order to obtain…the smattering of knowledge which a boy of ordinary attainments might be expected to possess before he left school.”

Fast-forward to the creation of the college system as we know it in Canada in 1965 and then Education Minister and later Premier of Ontario Bill Davis, seemingly channeled the British historian from a century earlier when he told the legislature, “it is not feasible, nor indeed desirable, that all graduated of our high schools should go to university. The real needs of a very substantial number of our young people lie elsewhere; they would be served poorly and fare poorly in the traditional university programs.”

The post-secondary system is the foundation the economy is built on and it is built using a lot of taxpayer dollars.

When it comes to modern day post-secondary reform, the issues of the 1850s and the 1960s are the same. Universities are slow to adapt their programming to the needs of the labour force.

For a variety of legitimate reasons, Canada’s universities are less nimble than their collegiate counterparts. They have standalone senates, individual pieces of founding legislation, more collective bargaining agreements, a robust tenure system, and a deeper and richer tradition. They also happen to have a near monopoly when it comes to producing those who make post-secondary reform decisions, where it’s political staff, civil servants, or politicians themselves.

For these reasons and more, the most common post-secondary reform discussed centres around the first half of Davis’s comments, that it is not feasible for all high school graduates to go to university. Canada’s progressives have put forward significant cost reduction measures for students ranging from forgiving student loan debt to making tuition completely free. In some respects, significant tuition subsidies are the literal embodiment of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s oft uttered slogan to “help the middle class and those working hard to join it.”

Though there is a legitimate conversation to be had about equality of access, it is the later half of Davis’s statement that goes virtually undiscussed: that the population requires more than just the current university offering to succeed. If the COVID-19 pandemic is to truly impact the post-secondary sector, it would be best if it forced decision-makers in government, including those on the centre-right, and post-secondary institutions to come to this realization.

For too long, the centre-right has ceded the ground on post-secondary issues for political reasons. The logic, understandably, is that students do not vote Conservative — big C or small c — so why bother? The reality is the post-secondary system is the foundation that the economy is built on, and it is built using a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Post-secondary spending falls only behind health care, education, and social services spending in most provinces. When capital funding is included, that number grows even higher. Knowing that the pandemic will one day force provincial governments to seriously review their spending, and that health care and education are virtually untouchable in the eyes of provincial premiers of all partisan stripes, cost reduction measures will come to the post-secondary space soon.

If universities resist that change, they will fall victim to more arbitrary decisions aimed at saving dollars rather than improving outcomes. If they embrace this change, by working with today’s governments to solve tomorrow’s problems, they can produce better graduates and make more money.

On outcomes, students are already passing judgement on the value of post-secondary with their feet. A staggering 18 percent of enrolled Ontario college students already have a university degree. Every student that opts for more schooling instead of joining the labour force costs government more, reduces tax revenue, and increases the ever-growing skills gap. On average, a single year of education costs the government $36,500 per student in Alberta, $31,300 in British Columbia, $25,800 in Quebec, and $21,500 in Ontario.

Post-secondary institutions are plugging serious revenue shortfalls with substantial tuition payments from international students.

Of course, investing in education has a greater societal and economic return in the long run. The same can be said for investing in graduate-level education as well, but many of these graduate-level college students are not returning to school to ensure a better job, they are returning to school to find their first one.

On revenue, post-secondary institutions across the country are plugging serious revenue shortfalls with substantial tuition payments from international students. At Queen’s University, undergraduate international students pay tuition rates that are more than seven times higher than tuition rates for domestic students.

The pandemic has made the revenue gaps even worse. Many international students find themselves restricted from coming to Canada during the pandemic and ancillary revenues from student spending on everything from parking to food is non-existent. In Ontario, the provincial association representing universities pegged the total cost of COVID-19 expenses at a net $500 million this year alone.

The question becomes how best to evolve the post-secondary sector. Alberta is pushing ahead with performance-based funding that ties a post-secondary institutions’ operating grant to student graduation and employment rates. Ontario is creating the country’s first ever micro-credential strategy, including financial assistance, to create quicker, more accessible programs designed to help those negatively impacted by the pandemic re-train and get back into the labour force.

Both are important examples of what can be done in this space. That said, both institutions and governments can go further.

If the trend of online programming is going to continue to accelerate, it can at least allow for exciting partnerships with international institutions that are world leaders in different areas through ‘microcampus’ networks. Canadian institutions can establish truly universal partnerships for the first time, combining in-person instruction from their local practitioners with online programming from international schools, giving students a combined degree while maintaining local enrollment requirements. The inverse is also true, allowing Canadian institutions to increase revenue by creating online programming that schools in other countries can use.

If the trend of fewer tenure track spaces is going to continue to accelerate, universities and governments can have a real conversation about which schools should offer which basic programs. Does every single British Columbia university need to offer an English program? Likely not. Some form of realignment and consolidation are likely coming anyways, as evidenced by Laurentian University’s recent bankruptcy and corresponding removal of 69 courses. If it is going to happen, why not do it in a planned and logical manner instead of a haphazard one?

Canada’s post-secondary sector has so far managed a history of continued expansion, which is largely good news for Canada. However, that continued growth masked underlying issues with programming relevance and revenues. Given the post-secondary sector has been built with taxpayer dollars, these issues should concern partisans of all stripes.

Ultimately, if the COVID-19 pandemic does accelerate trends in post-secondary after all, that would be a positive development.