The Commons: Not enough time to explain, so don't bother trying

Gerry Ritz has now taken 50 questions on the travails of XL foods. Still, the opposition seems unsatisfied

The Scene. Conservative MP Dan Albas, still new to this place and apparently not yet exhausted of all ideals, lamented last week that the 35 seconds allotted for each response in Question Period were not nearly sufficient to explain the obviously complicated matters of national governance. “While it is possible to ask a meaningful question in 35 seconds,” he explained, “I am certain most would agree that when it comes to governance, very few answers can be given in such a short timeframe.”

Perhaps this explains why the Harper government has spent tens of millions in public funds on television advertisements to explain itself to the public. Perhaps that’s why Diane Finley, questioned repeatedly in the House about a flaw in her reforms to employment insurance, decided to announce a change in her plans via news release on the Friday afternoon before the House went on break for a week.

For sure, difficult questions are not easily answered. Witness Gerry Ritz, who, for another day, was asked not only to explain why the nation’s food safety system hadn’t prevented 15 people from getting sick, but also if he would just go ahead and resign.

“Mr. Speaker, 42 days since this crisis began; 15 confirmed cases of E. coli poisoning; still no accountability,” Thomas Mulcair charged this afternoon, gesturing this way and that, conducting a tiny imaginary orchestra in front of him. “This crisis is putting the hammer to farmers and ranchers across Canada. Thousands of workers have been laid off, inspections halted and the minister refers to all of this as ‘a private sector business decision.’ What the minister still does not get, four years after his last crisis, is that his job was and is to regulate that business in the public interest. When will the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food take responsibility and resign?”

After a few days away from this place, Mr. Ritz has now taken 50 questions on the travails of XL Foods, enough for just over 29 minutes of responding. Still the opposition seems unsatisfied with what they have heard. Perhaps if he’d shown himself for those first three days, opposition MPs would have tired of questioning him by now or perhaps opposition MPs would just have more things to ask him about.

Eventually, the opposition side moved on to other matters this day, including the discovery of federal research which apparently indicates a trade deal with the European Union would increase the price of pharmaceuticals by somewhere between $14.7 million and $1.95 billion per year.

“For months the trade minister has denied he is looking at signing a deal with Europe that would increase the price of medicine. He called it a myth. Now we learn that the minister has been studying exactly that and found that extending drug patents could cost Canadians as much as $2 billion a year,” the NDP’s Don Davies reported this afternoon. “Will the minister now admit that this deal could raise the price of prescription drugs for Canadian seniors?”

The minister was away from the House, so Gerald Keddy, the parliamentary secretary, stood to attempt a response.

“Mr. Speaker, our government has always sought to strike a balance between promoting innovation and job creation and ensuring that Canadians continue to have access to the affordable drugs that they need,” he conveyed, assisted by a blue piece of paper he held in his hand. “For the honourable member opposite, we continue to consult with the provinces and the territories in an very open set of negotiations. These—”

Some heckling interrupted Mr. Keddy, compelling the Speaker to intervene.

“Mr. Speaker, I am getting a lot of help here,” Mr. Keddy continued.

“You need it!” came a voice from the opposition side.

“These negotiations continue to be the most open, progressive negotiations,” Mr. Keddy offered before his time expired.

Mr. Davies tried again. “Why will the minister not come clean about what he is putting on the table? Life-saving prescription drugs are a necessity, not a luxury. Of course, we must support the research and development of new drugs, but not at the expense of Canadian seniors, employers and provinces,” he pleaded. “Will the minister refuse any deal that drives up the price of prescription drugs for Canadians? How about some honesty this time. Canadians deserve an answer.”

As noted, the minister was absent and so it was back to Mr. Keddy.

“Mr. Speaker, let me once again assure this House that an agreement will be signed only if it is in the best interests of Canadians,” he declared.

Here then, he turned on the opposition.

“Does the NDP want to talk about, want to talk about—”

There were groans in expectation of what was about to come. The Speaker called for order.

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Keddy continued. “While I have the floor, if the NDP wants to talk about what is going to drive costs up for Canadians, and especially Canadian seniors, let us talk about its carbon tax—”

Alas, Mr. Keddy’s time was once again up.

Mr. Keddy has been a Conservative MP since 2004 (before that he was a Progressive Conservative), which means he has twice run on a party platform that expressed an interest in cap-and-trade and was a member of a government that repeatedly advocated for a price on carbon.

He might be asked to explain all that, but he would likely need a lot more than 35 seconds to do so.

The Stats. Food safety, 10 questions. Employment insurance, five questions. Foreign investment, four questions. Trade, three questions. Afghanistan, search-and-rescue, museums and prisons, two questions each. Bullying, Jamaica, co-ops, science, small business, wildlife, veterans and immigration, one question each.

Gerry Ritz, ten responses. Diane Finley, five responses. Gerald Keddy and Vic Toews, four responses each. Christian Paradis, three responses. Peter MacKay, Jacques Gourde, Gary Goodyear and James Moore, two responses each. Rob Nicholson, Diane Ablonczy, Randy Kamp, Steven Blaney and Rick Dykstra, one response each.

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