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Comment: Moving on from the plebiscite

From the January 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

The Alberta Beef Producers plebiscite results were a disappointment for those hoping for a non-refundable provincial check-off.

In case you haven’t been following it, here’s a quick summary of the situation. Each year the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) collects $4.50 per head on cattle sold within the province. The national check-off, which supports the Beef Cattle Research Council, Canada Beef and Issues Management, takes $2.50 of that levy. The national portion is not refundable. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association takes a small cut of the remaining $2, with the balance going to the Alberta Beef Producers.

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Since 2009, Alberta producers have been able to get a refund on the provincial check-off on request. That refund option likely causes budgeting headaches for the ABP. As Barb Duckworth at the Western Producer reported, the number and amount of refunds fluctuate, and they can be substantial. Duckworth noted that ABP refunded $2.5 million of the 2017 check-off. Cow-calf producers received $273,000 of that refund and feedlots requested and received $2.2 million.

The ABP and the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA) worked out a deal to share the provincial check-off and develop an industry development fund, pending approval of Alberta’s beef producers. The proposed industry development fund would have been managed by both the ACFA and ABP.

It was a big decision that could affect the beef industry in Alberta and beyond, so producers got a chance to vote in a plebiscite in late 2018. ABP released the plebiscite results at its AGM in early December. In the end, just over 51 per cent voted for a refundable model and 48.5 per cent chose a non-refundable model. The difference between the two sides came down to 50 votes and change. Talk about a close vote.

It’s easy to dwell on what could have been, but both Charlie Christie, ABP chair, and Ryan Kasko, ACFA chair, said they would respect the voters’ decision. I think the non-refundable proposal had merit, but the plebiscite results are not surprising when you consider the beef industry’s tight margins and people’s desire to hold organizations accountable. Ultimately, the ABP is in the same position as they were last year and the year before. They will have to constantly prove they’re worthy of each producer’s hard-earned dollars. It’s an uncomfortable position, but it is reality for ABP and many other producer groups.

To me, the voter turnout seems like more of a concern than the outcome. Out of about 18,000 eligible voters, 1,874 marked a ballot. The rotten fall weather and Canada Post’s issues could have been factors. But it still seems low given the issue at stake.

Christie and I chatted about it, and he said that engaging people is always a big challenge. Unless there’s something threatening the industry, it’s tough to get many people engaged. Still, he would have thought the plebiscite was a big enough issue to get people voting. But in this day and age, people suffer information overload on almost everything, he said, and producers are busy running their operations.

There’s no silver bullet, Christie said, but the ABP is considering ways to improve producer engagement, given the turnout. In all fairness, ABP are far from the only organization that faces this challenge.

The ABP has some work ahead to ensure the rank and file feel like they’re being heard and represented. But on the plus side, the collaboration between the ABP and ACFA is encouraging. I asked Christie if they plan to keep working together. He said they’d already approached each other to do just that.

“We’ve got a little different relationship with them than we had. We’re in pretty well constant contact now on most issues. So we’re definitely going to try to collaborate in some fashion,” said Christie. ABP and ACFA will have a board-to-board meeting in January and brainstorm how to salvage the partnership, he added.

“The relationship itself, I think, is a productive outcome anyway,” said Christie. “I think we’ve turned a corner there. I think both sides are very, very positive on making sure that atmosphere stays around and we keep working together.”

I think that collaboration makes sense in a lot of ways. Although the two groups are bound to disagree on some issues, they have enough common ground that it seems to me it would be worth working together.

Every proposed change comes with the risk of rejection. While leaders of both groups were disappointed, they handled the outcome well. Respecting the vote was the right thing to do. And now, as Christie said, “It’s time to start working for the industry and quit talking about funding.”

About the author

Editor

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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