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Bernier hates protectionism, just not for milk and eggs

Canada's supply management system shields Canadian poultry, dairy products and eggs from foreign competition.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Maxime Bernier, Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism, wants Canadians to know that he is a passionate advocate of free trade.

Open markets, he argues, are key to Canada's economic prosperity. And, make no mistake, he abhors protectionism – except when it comes to Canadian dairy and poultry products.

Ask Mr. Bernier about "supply management" – a protectionist system that shields Canadian poultry, dairy products and eggs from foreign competition and results in higher prices for consumers – and he'll tell you Ottawa will continue to protect farmers' interests.

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"It [supply management]is something that we will continue to defend and promote," Mr. Bernier said in an interview Thursday night, following his address at the Spotlight on Entrepreneurs gala in Toronto.

Dairy and poultry farmers are, of course, small business owners, too, making them a pivotal part of Mr. Bernier's cabinet constituent base. As a result, he is eager to offer them assurances: "If you look at the past, you can be sure that we'll do the same in the future. In the past, we always protect and promote the supply management in Canada."

Canada's decades-old supply management system, which includes tariff controls, has garnered renewed scrutiny this week on word that Canada wants to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That proposed free-trade agreement, which would cover a slew of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, is being spearheaded by Canada's largest trading partner, the United States.

Although Trade Minister Ed Fast has said supply management would not be a barrier to Canada's participation in the trade talks, there is speculation Ottawa will face intense pressure to come up with a compromise.

For his part, Mr. Bernier, who marked his return to cabinet earlier this year, made it clear that he supports his government's position on supply management. While he is now bound by cabinet solidarity, his view on supply management appears at odds with his fundamental belief in free trade.

For example, asked whether Canada has made any progress in obtaining an exemption to the contentious "Buy American" restrictions included in U.S. President Barack Obama's recent American Jobs Act, Mr. Bernier doesn't hesitate to trot out the "P" word.

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"We have, I think, an obligation as politicians to speak to other leaders and other politicians and explain that protectionism – it is not good for jobs, for wealth, and it is not something that will help … countries," he said.

Canada's small business lobby has become a vocal opponent of this latest version of Buy American because the provision excludes Canadian firms from bidding for valuable U.S. contracts.

While Canada was successful in obtaining an exemption to the "Buy American" restrictions included in previous U.S. stimulus legislation, it has yet to secure immunity this time around.

It's clear the issue doesn't sit well with Mr. Bernier, who argues that Canada's economic success is inextricably linked to free trade with the United States and other countries.

"Free markets and free trades – at the end, it's freedom of choice for consumers and I believe in freedom," he said. "I believe in freedom of choice. And for businesses who want to sell their products around the globe, it is also a freedom of choice."

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