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.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.