The Commons: Ministerial accountability means the minister will hold someone to account

All beef-related matters fell to Peter MacKay

The Scene. Peter MacKay held in his right hand a white piece of paper, on which was apparently written everything he needed to know to get him through this odd spot he now found himself in.

With the Prime Minister away from the House, it was apparently Mr. MacKay’s turn to lead the government side. And with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz also absent, there was apparently no other option but to let the Defence Minister handle the increasingly insistent questions about the handling of the nation’s beef products.

Rising to open QP, Thomas Mulcair alleged two issues: the Agriculture Minister’s earlier suggestion that no contaminated meat had reached store shelves and Mr. Ritz’s claim that there been no cuts to food inspection.

Mr. MacKay stood and assured the House that consumers were the “top priority” and that Mr. Ritz would be holding those responsible for food safety to account.

Mr. Mulcair then elaborated on his two concerns. Referring to the Harper government’s financial planning documents, he noted a budget reduction of $46.6 million over two years and the elimination of 314 jobs at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Mr. MacKay repeated his assurances en francais and then switched to English. “Let us be clear,” the Defence Minister clarified, “under this government we have actually seen an increase in inspectors. We have actually seen 700 food inspectors added to the rolls since 2006, including 170 particular to the subject of meat inspection.”

The Conservatives applauded. Mr. Mulcair was unpersuaded.

“Mr. Speaker, why are the Conservatives continuing to claim there are no cuts when their own financial documents say just the opposite? Are their financial documents not accurate?” he begged, palms upturned in mock confusion.

“This is the same minister who mishandled the listeriosis outbreak in 2008, and joked about ‘death by a thousand … cold cuts’ ” the NDP leader recounted of Mr. Ritz. “It was not funny then, and it is not funny now. Is this the best they have to offer Canadians who are worried whether the food they are giving their kids is safe? The minister stands in the House and keeps making misleading statements. Will there be no accountability for this new tainted meat scandal?”

Mr. MacKay rose to assure the House of Mr. Ritz’s efforts. “Mr. Speaker, I can assure the House the Minister of Agriculture is working very hard and is working sincerely,” the Defence Minister said, “to ensure that this issue is dealt with appropriately, including ensuring we have more food inspectors and more meat inspectors.”

The minister ventured that legislation had been introduced to improve food safety, but that the NDP had opposed such unquestionably good stuff. Lest there be any confusion, the NDP’s Malcolm Allen sought to simplify matters for the viewing public. “Mr. Speaker, it is simple, Canadians want safe food for their families, and it is the Minister of Agriculture’s job to make sure they protect it,” he explained.

With that much on the record, Mr. Allen attempt to narrow in on the discrepancy. “September 3 was the first positive test for E. coli, yet it was not until September 26 that the XL plant in question had its licence suspended,” he reported. “Here we are, 12 beef recall notices encompassing 1.9 million pounds of suspect E. coli-contaminated beef.”

Then to a specific challenge. “Why did the Conservatives’ new regulations not work to protect Canadians?” Mr. Allen wondered. “Will the Conservatives now admit that self-regulation does not work?”

To this, the government side sent up Pierre Lemieux, Mr. Ritz’s parliamentary secretary. Mr. Lemieux referred Mr. Allen to the universally regarded principle of “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” “Mr. Speaker, I must point out that this member has no credibility on this issue,” he scolded. “Earlier last week, this member said that there were no CFIA inspectors in the plant. This was untrue, there were 46 CFIA inspectors at the XL plant. That is a 20% increase over what there was three years ago.”

Mr. Allen attempted to maintain focus. “Mr. Speaker, let us be clear,” he suggested, “it is the government’s cuts and policies of self-regulation that have failed.”

Mr. Lemieux assured the House that the Minister of Agriculture was duly holding someone accountable. “The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is very much on top of this file and he is holding CFIA’s feet to the fire to ensure that it responds quickly and effectively,” he declared.

He then explained that if you didn’t vote for the budget, you voted in favour of rancid meat. “The truth of the matter is that our party, our government, has put forward legislation to increase funding to the CFIA by $150 million over the last two budgets,” he explained. “However, that member’s party voted against it.”

It was now Bob Rae’s turn to play the voice of reason. “Mr. Speaker, perhaps one could ask the question: When was the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food informed of the problems at the XL plant?” he mused. “If the Canadian consumer is so much at the forefront of the government’s concern, can the government please explain why it was that the Canadian consumer in Alberta and elsewhere was not informed for a full two weeks by the Government of Canada with respect to the problems at XL?”

Back now to Mr. MacKay. “Mr. Speaker, the leader of the Liberal Party was in the House and he knows that the minister has held officials accountable with respect to this issue,” the Defence Minister protested.

“Ahhh!” came the mocking sigh from the opposition side.

“We have increased the CFIA’s budget by $156 million during our time in government,” Mr. MacKay concluded. “There is more front-line workers and more safety for Canadians.”

Mr. Rae segued neatly from this. “And there are at least nine people who have been infected by E. coli, including a young girl who had an operation because her kidneys stopped working. That is the issue that the government has to come to terms with,” he clarified.

Now the interim Liberal leader raised his voice and mounted his protest. “We had this long explanation from CFIA, we have the protestations by ministers, but we still have two hard realities,” he charged. “For a long period of time, a long period of silence. Canadian consumers were not informed and the minister has not told us when he knew about the problem at XL.”

Even if the Defence Minister knows what the Agriculture Minister knew, it is likely not for him to say.

“I know that the minister will continue to have his attention on this file,” Mr. MacKay offered.

Of this there is probably no doubt.

The Stats. Food safety, nine questions. Employment insurance, seven questions. Foreign aid and seniors, three questions each. The budget, the coast guard, air safety, border security and Omar Khadr, two questions each. Prince Edward Island, taxation, the F-35, housing, regulation, aboriginal affairs and the RCMP, one question each.

Diane Finley, nine responses. Peter MacKay, six responses. Vic Toews, five responses. Pierre Lemieux, Julian Fantino, Andrew Saxton and Randy Kamp, three responses each. Denis Lebel, Bob Dechert and Alice Wong, two responses each. Rona Ambrose, one response.