The Commons: Gerry Ritz did not inspect that ground beef

The Scene. Shortly before the farce was laid bare before the House yesterday, Stephen Harper stood and offered an important clarification on the contractual obligations of the Minister of Agriculture.

“Mr. Speaker,” the Prime Minister explained, “it is not the minister who does food inspection; it is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that does food inspection.”

Indeed, the nation’s conveyor belts are not directed through Gerry Ritz’s Parliament Hill office. Each package of meat, each piece of produce, is not personally stamped by him with his ministerial approval. He does not spend his weekends swabbing for bacteria, or at least he is not required by the standing orders to do so.

Nonetheless, it is the opinion of both the New Democrats and the Liberals that Mr. Ritz should bear some of the blame for the largest beef recall in this country’s history.

“Mr. Speaker, 44 days after the onset of the crisis of contaminated meat, there is still another product recall that has just taken place,” Thomas Mulcair reported this afternoon. “Does the Prime Minister realize that his Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is responsible because it is his program, his way of doing things, that put the lives of Canadians in danger?”

The business of responsible government is a constant debate about what precisely the government is responsible for.

Mr. Harper was not convinced. “Mr. Speaker, on the contrary, Canada has one of the best systems in the world in this regard,” he declared. “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for inspections. Because of data collected, they decided to take several actions, including final closure of the factory. The plant will remain closed until it is clearly safe.”

Mr. Mulcair was not willing to make a distinction between the minister and the agency. “Mr. Speaker, on September 13, the CFIA shut down beef exports from XL Foods. The Minister of Agriculture determined that beef from XL was not safe enough to be sold to American families but allowed that same contaminated beef to be sold to Canadian families for another 14 days,” the NDP leader ventured. “I have a straightforward question. Does the Prime Minister stand by his minister’s decision to allow contaminated beef to be sold to Canadian families for another 14 days after the CFIA had determined it was not safe for Americans?”

Mr. Harper deferred to science. “Mr. Speaker, it is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that makes these decisions based on science, not on political decisions,” he explained. “The reality in this situation is that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has taken a series of actions, up to and including shutting down the plant. Obviously, it will not allow the plant to open until such time as it is convinced that the plant can operate safely.”

There were groans from the opposition as Mr. Harper redirected matters to the CFIA.

On one side, accusatory hand gestures. On the other, conciliatory hand gestures. A space of two sword-lengths between them, within which was a profound disagreement about the definition of the word “responsibility.”

A few moments later, Bob Rae stood with a suggestion. “Mr. Speaker, if the Prime Minister is as confident as he says, that Canada has the best food inspection system in the world, then I wonder why his government would not accept the very simple amendment that is now being considered in the Senate that would allow a third party, namely, the Auditor General, to do the review with respect to the activities of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the whole system instead of asking the minister to do the review, because the minister has already said everything is working fine, everything is just great,” the interim Liberal leader offered. “Why not let the Auditor General do that job?”

In his seat, Mr. Ritz seated somehow unimpressed with this, throwing up his hands at one point.

It was in Mr. Harper’s opinion that this was not within the government’s purview. “Mr. Speaker,” the Prime Minister pleaded, “the leader of the Liberal Party as an experienced parliamentarian should know that the government does not direct the work of the Auditor General.”

“You can call her in at anytime!” cried a voice from the Liberal corner, apparently still pining for Sheila Fraser.

Mr. Rae, his white hair a bit ruffled, now moved his focus a little further down the frontbench.

“Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the Prime Minister could now tell us exactly what his standards are with respect to the conduct of ministers,” Mr. Rae prefaced. “There is substantial evidence now that there was overspending in the last election by the member for Labrador, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, by over $20,000 in a campaign which had a limit of $80,000.”

His voice rose as he neared his question and he jabbed the air with an index finger.

“This is not simply a question about Elections Canada,” he clarified. “This is a question about the standards of the Prime Minister of Canada with respect to the conduct of his candidates.”

And then a question in a pun.

“Instead of buying elections, why not a byelection?” Mr. Rae wondered.

(Mr. Rae was so fond of this pun he’d already tweeted it an hour and a half earlier.)

The Prime Minister again sought to clarify the precise nature of responsibility.

“Mr. Speaker, as was conceded some time ago, there were errors in the filings of the official agent in this case. That is the individual responsible. A new official agent was named. That agent has been working for some time with Elections Canada to correct these problems,” Mr. Harper explained.

Now the Prime Minister gestured in the general direction of Mr. Rae.

“If the honourable gentleman wants to talk about standards, it was the Liberal member for Guelph whose campaign was found to have made $5,000 in illegal robocalls. That was a clear decision. No action was taken,” he chided. “The member told us Adam Carroll would no longer be a staffer and he no sooner said that and they brought him back in to the Liberal Party.”

The Conservatives stood to cheer their man’s rejoinder. “Hear! Hear!” John Baird called.

The nature of responsible government is thus clarified: the government is only responsible for matching the lowest identifiable standard of its political opponents.

The Stats. Food safety and ethics, nine questions. Foreign investment and employment insurance, three questions each. The budget, airports and Afghanistan, two questions each. Privacy, economic development, employment, immigration, equality, small business and museums, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight responses. Pierre Poilievre, seven responses. Gerry Ritz, five responses. Jim Flaherty and Diane Finley, four responses each. Gary Goodyear, three responses. Gerald Keddy, two responses. Vic Toews, Jacques Gourde, Rick Dykstra, Rona Ambrose and James Moore, one response each.