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Goodbye George

Alberta’s controversial ag minister is replaced

In January Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach dropped his controversial agriculture minister George Groeneveld from cabinet. Normally the changing of an agriculture minister wouldn’t warrant comment. In today’s world one minister is much like another. Each leaves a small mark on the face of the industry they watch over on behalf of government, but in the main, things go on much as they did before.

Groeneveld was different. Love him or hate him, you have to admit he wasn’t one to just cut ribbons and dish out platitudes. He came to the job with an agenda and he forcefully put it into action.

Believing that producers in general, and their official organizations in particular, were not doing enough to turn Alberta’s beef industry around, he decided to give them a push. So he drove his bureaucrats to create the Alberta Livestock and Meat Strategy, and recruit a top-drawer list of people with backgrounds in processing, retail, international marketing and production to run his strategy from the boardroom of the arm’s-length Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA). Then he gave them the money and authority to make it happen. His plan runs until 2013 but already we’ve seen mandatory ag verification, premise ID and traceability legislated into place.

Groeneveld believes Alberta’s beef industry must turn sharply toward Asia and away from the U.S., selling a value-added product with the specs to force government’s overseas to open their doors to Canadian beef. Certainly Alberta has a larger pool of age-verified beef than it did in the past but to date that hasn’t done much to open up new markets in Asia.

Along the way Groeneveld paid little attention to the old-line organizations, going so far as to legislate away Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) mandatory checkoff. Commodity committees were set up to advise the ALMA board, further reducing the influence of the ABP. To be fair this also gave a much bigger voice to other producer groups led by the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association and Western Stock Growers Association who often don’t share the ABP’s view of the world.

George no doubt viewed his strategy as more inclusive of industry opinion, others saw it as a divide-and-conquer operation. In every respect, however, it put the government at the head of all decisions, and that offended many people.

Too many it appears, if last month’s cabinet shuffle is to be taken at face value. The surprise is not that he was replaced. Groeneveld had already announced that he did not intend to run again for a provincial seat. The surprise was that he was dropped before his term expired. That is being seen as a direct result of the high-handed way he brought in his policies.

Whether it is a reaction to Groeneveld’s policies, as well, won’t be known until we see what the new minister, Jack Hayden, does upon settling into his new portfolio. Will he amend Bill 43 before it comes into force on April 1, either to reinstate the mandatory checkoff, or perhaps make the national $1 portion of Alberta’s $3 checkoff non-refundable? Will ALMA continue to direct the province’s livestock strategy?

No change would suggest the Conservative government continues to endorse Groeneveld’s policies but just wanted to remove him from the fray.

Hayden, who farms near Endiang, was shuffled into agriculture from the infrastructure portfolio. So he’s no stranger to controversy. In his old job he had to sell Albertans on his government’s new Land Assembly Project Area Act. It allows government to lock up land for large utility corridors, conservation or water management projects for two years before starting the expropriation process. Many rural people saw it as just another high-handed Conservative policy.

Hayden is a former county reeve and councillor and board member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. So he has some experience in working with fractious groups. That could come in handy working with beef organizations in Alberta at the moment.

If nothing else Hayden’s appointment has changed the political dynamic for beef producers in Alberta, and possibly across the country.

George Groeneveld had a strong relationship with federal Ag Minister Gerry Ritz, and some influence over his other provincial colleagues. Indeed, it was Groeneveld who was credited with pushing the country’s agriculture ministers to set the 2011 deadline for mandatory traceability in livestock at their meeting last July.

It will be interesting to see how much of Groeneveld’s legacy survives with time and how much of it bears fruit in terms of better market opportunities for Alberta and Canadian beef.

About the author

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Gren Winslow

Gren Winslow is a past editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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