The Commons: Gerry Ritz is away right now, please leave a message

Aaron Wherry on tainted meat and ministerial accountability

The Scene. The leader of the opposition rose to second guess the Minister of Agriculture’s schedulers.

“Why,” he wondered, “is the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food busy doing photo ops instead of answering questions and being accountable?”

Thomas Mulcair stared down the Prime Minister as he asked the question. The Prime Minister stood and suggested the opposition parties support a bill that has been in the Senate since June.

Officially, Gerry Ritz was at the XL Foods plant in Calgary this morning to “personally ensure” all of the food inspection officials involved “understand that the health and safety of Canadians is our first priority.” (Should we be concerned Mr. Ritz felt it necessary to confirm this?) Yesterday and the day before, Mr. Ritz was in and around his riding in Saskatchewan.

The basic premise of ministerial accountability—foundational to our system of parliamentary democracy—is a bit of a riddle. For sure, there is general agreement that a minister of the crown is generally accountable for matters within the realm of his or her ministry. But beneath that principle are questions about how and in what way it should be applied. Surely, for instance, no one could suggest that a minister is so personally responsible for every individual and action in his department that he should be blamed—or even forced to resign—for anything that should go wrong. Surely no one would expect that Mr. Ritz should be assigned to inspect the suspect meat himself. And only after a full airing of the circumstances can judgment and blame be determined and assigned.

Less that, the minister is accountable in only one way: he must be here. He must sit and listen (or at least pretend to listen) and then stand in his assigned spot and emit carbon dioxide and flex his vocal chords for the purposes of forming words. It doesn’t even particularly matter what he says, so much as that he says something. And that he does so within these walls during regular business hours. Ultimately, the principle of ministerial accountability doesn’t mean much more than that.

This much Bob Rae was eventually compelled to enter into the record, quoting from the government’s guide for ministers and ministers of state: “Ministers must be present in Parliament to respond to questions on the discharge of their responsibilities.”

Absent the minister, the NDP’s Malcolm Allen offered to quote him this afternoon. “Mr. Speaker, we have not heard the minister answer a single question in the House this week, but he was a guest speaker at a luncheon in Battleford, Saskatchewan,” Mr. Allen reported, “when the minister said, ‘We had some great Canadian beef for lunch. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t care.’ ”

Whatever the innocuous or unfortunate nature of this sentiment, Mr. Ritz likely wishes these were not his only words committed to the official record this week.

“Is the minister not aware that CFIA is warning Canadian consumers to ask grocers if their beef came from XL Foods?” Mr. Allen asked. “When will the minister stop making jokes, stop contradicting food safety officials and take his job seriously?”

Pierre Lemieux, Mr. Ritz’s personal out-of-office autoreply, rose to offer reassurance. “Mr. Speaker, Canadians know that the health and safety of Canadians is a top priority for this government,” he ventured. “In fact, Canada has a superior food safety system. I will read a quote from a report on OECD countries regarding food safety. It states, ‘Canada is one of the best-performing countries in the 2010 Food Safety Performance World Ranking study. Its overall grade was superior — earning it a place among the top-tier countries.’ ”

Apparently not mollified by two-year-old rankings, Mr. Allen pressed further, returning to the words of Mr. Ritz. “Mr. Speaker, the agriculture minister was not done. When he was asked about the E.coli tainted beef recall, he said, ‘we’ve identified some anomalies in the XL Plant.’ Anomalies? Really?” the New Democrat begged. “Update for the minister: the plant is closed.”

In fairness, Mr. Ritz is probably well aware of this after visiting the plant today.

“Why is the minister refusing to take responsibility and minimizing the largest beef recall in Canadian history?” Mr. Allen asked. “Why is he speaking at luncheons and not answering Canadians or the House of Commons?”

Mr. Lemieux repeated his reassurances. “Mr. Speaker, I will reiterate that the health and safety of Canadians is a top priority for this government.”

The questions persisted and Mr. Lemieux eventually turned on the opposition, listing the various expenditures on food safety that the New Democrats had opposed when voting against the government.

“We have been taking measures to improve food safety and we have enacted the 57 recommendations within the Weatherill report. We put aside $75 million to do so. The opposition members voted against that,” he protested after being challenged by the NDP’s Linda Duncan. “They must account to Canadians for this failure on their part.”

Indeed. Let us all agree that standing in this place and accounting for oneself is exactly what should be expected.

The Stats. Food safety, 15 questions. Foreign investment, five questions. Ethics, four questions. The Canadian Forces and transportation, three questions each. The budget and trade, two questions each. Health care, employment insurance, aboriginal affairs, taxation and foreign affairs, one question each.

Pierre Lemieux, eight responses. Stephen Harper, seven responses. Christian Paradis, five responses. Pierre Poilievre, four responses. Peter MacKay and Denis Lebel, three responses each. Tony Clement and Gerald Keddy, two responses each. Leona Aglukkaq, Diane Finley, John Duncan, Joe Oliver and Bob Dechert, one response each.

The Commons: Gerry Ritz is away right now, please leave a message

  1. The Conservatives are falling down on the job; what not one member clever enough to embed carbon tax with meat recall?

  2. “We have been taking measures to improve food safety and we have enacted
    the 57 recommendations within the Weatherill report. We put aside $75
    million to do so. The opposition members voted against that,”

    They had a separate, specific vote on this particular issue? Or they lumped it in with all kinds of things the opposition could not support and presented it in the HoC as one big omnibus bill, against which the opposition voiced extreme concerns because they felt different sections should be voted on separately?

    That’s what I thought…

    I said during the budget there were things in there that the CPC would throw back at the opposition as things they “voted against”. That’s part of the reason they had the omnibus bill to begin with… propaganda to suck in the unwary.

    • I’m not sure if those measures were in the recent omnibus bill, but the tactic is undoubtedly going to be used again in the next go round on pensions. I know the public doesn’t pay much attention, but surely they wont be sucked in on the doorstep in ’15 by this garbage?

      • I wouldn’t put any heavy bets on ’15; they managed to suck in enough inattentive voters this past election to pull off a majority…

        • Let’s hope the country at least takes away the car keys again. After all last time we were in minority it was such a blast.

    • Also, they put aside $75 million to enact recommendations. But where did they SPEND the $75 million? After all, we put aside $50 million for border security–and got gazebos well north of any border.

  3. The sad reality is that the Harper government would be out of its depth in a car park puddle. Everything is made up as it stumbles along. The propaganda machine works like a charm though.

    • lol

  4. Looking back at some of the reporting after the last omnibus budget bill in the spring, between 100 and 300 positions were trimmed from the CFIA. That’s a pretty big cut from the 700,000 uh, 700 food inspectors that Harper is claiming have been added since 2006.

    Remember the mantra? Jobs, Growth and Long Term Prosperity.

    I’m not sure this is the kind of “Growth” the CPC had in mind, but it should not come as a big surprise.

  5. Didn’t a former Minister get rung for joking over the listeria incident a few back? Oh wait… It was one Gerry Ritz!(September 17,2008).
    Wait he’s still the Minister in charge largely of ensuring our food is inspected before it reaches the masses?!
    Can anyone anywhere be that numb minded about their job and NOT get fired?

    • Not only was he not fired, but he was also re-elected, and most of us Canadians seem to have totally forgotten about the listeria, and the BSE, from just a few years ago. And as long as we, the voters, have such short memories, well then, Mr Ritz can just keep his job while we all eat tainted meat.

  6. “understand that the health and safety of Canadians is our first priority.”Mr. Ritz.

    What do Harper and Harris have in common, besides names that start with “Har”and have 6 letters? Now, two major tainted scandals.

    The thing about ultra right wing governments is that one finds it difficult to believe that the health and safety of its citizens is the first priority since “corporations’ fill most of the space of importance in these governments.
    The average citizen who does fall for the brainwashing is well aware of this.

  7. “understand that the health and safety of Canadians is our first priority.”Mr. Ritz.

    What do Harper and Harris have in common, besides names that start
    with “Har”and have 6 letters? Now, two major tainted scandals.

    The thing about ultra right wing governments is that one finds it
    difficult to believe that the health and safety of its citizens is the
    first priority since “corporations’ fill most of the space of importance
    in these governments.
    The average citizen who does not fall for the brainwashing is well aware of this.

  8. “We certainly would have voted for improved food safety if that measure had been presented as a stand-alone bill, outside of the bloated omnibus budget bill.” – suggested opposition answer to the new Conservative line.

  9. Please improve Bill S-11I have a dear friend who had to have brain surgery due to the lack of standards in food safety.
    She did catch the listeria.
    The out come of what happened to my friend was outrageous

    I am writing to thank you for amending the food safety bill to require an audit to find out if the CFIA has the resources it needs to protect me and my family from unsafe food.

    This is a good idea but I hope you will consider doing more, a lot more!!!

    The first audit is not required until five years after the food safety bill becomes law. I’m worried about a five year wait especially with the current E. coli outbreak. I also think the law should require that these audit reports be made public.

    Please let me know if you will make these changes.

    Christina

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