The Commons: Who is responsible for three million pounds of suspect meat?

The Scene. Thomas Mulcair’s question was existential.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives do not seem to have the slightest concept of ministerial responsibility. The minister responsible for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the official responsible for food safety, period,” he explained. “They cannot pass the buck to civil servants. They cannot keep their feet to the fire. What they can do is take responsibility and be accountable. That is the basis of our parliamentary system. However, the Conservatives say the minister is not responsible.”

Mr. Mulcair gestured with his left hand towards Gerry Ritz’s empty chair.

“The minister did not tell the truth,” Mr. Mulcair continued, “but the Conservatives say he is not responsible.”

Like a kindergartener who’d just heard a classmate say some terrible word like “crap” or “stupidhead,” John Baird pointed at the NDP leader and appealed to the Speaker for some sort of reprimand (it perhaps being unparliamentary to suggest that a member of this place has, in any way, failed to tell the absolute truth).

“If the Minister of Agriculture will not be held responsible for the tainted meat scandal,” Mr. Mulcair continued, the Speaker declining to intervenue, “then what is the point of having a minister?”

The Prime Minister had stumbled at the outset of this afternoon: asserting with his first response that it was necessary to speak the truth and then claiming that his government had hired 700,000 food inspectors. After this slip drew some tittering from the opposition, Mr. Harper used his second response to confess, with a slight smile, that he had overestimated by approximately 699,300 inspectors. Responding to this third question from Mr. Mulcair, the Prime Minister repeated the smaller number and summarized the basic parameters of responsibility thusly.

“Mr. Speaker, once again, it is necessary to state the facts. The government has added 700 net new inspectors since 2006,” he said.

“Apparently they didn’t work!” mocked Ralph Goodale from the Liberal corner.

(In this battle of numbers it is perhaps problematic that the inspectors’ union seems not to know where some 170 meat inspectors have ended up and claims that 100 food inspectors might eventually be eliminated in budget cuts.)

“On this particular case, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated product, beginning on September 4 and has been acting ever since then,” Mr. Harper continued. “If the member believes that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, the government in fact has legislation before the House to make sure that it has greater authorities and we look forward to the NDP support on that.”

Malcolm Allen, the NDP’s agriculture critic took his turn. “Mr. Speaker, Canadian families are becoming more and more concerned about the lack of due diligence on food safety,” he reported. “We are now learning XL Foods had zero requirements to monitor trend analysis, or to quote, ‘couldn’t connect the dots.’ Almost three million pounds of suspect meat is under recall and yet the minister continues to claim nothing went wrong and defends his reckless cuts to food safety. It is the Conservatives who cannot connect the dots. When will they accept responsibility and start providing Canadian families with answers?”

Pierre Lemieux, the parliamentary secretary, repeated the Prime Minister’s assurances and then pointed to the real problem here: the NDP’s insufficient support for the government’s budgets. “What the member needs to account for,” Mr. Lemieux ventured of Mr. Allen, “is him voting against additional resources for the CFIA, both in terms of new inspectors and in terms of additional financing.”

Mr. Allen now stepped entirely into the aisle—the precious two sword-lengths reduced to perhaps one-and-a-half swords—to respond. “Mr. Speaker, those resources clearly did not work,” he shot back, “because we are facing the largest recall of beef in Canadian history. Over one-third of the processing capacity is shut down. People deserve answers.”

The New Democrat alliteratively ventured that the Conservatives had failed both families and farmers. Once more, Mr. Lemieux blamed the opposition for being insufficiently supportive. “Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Lemieux declared, “it is important to note that it is the NDP that has failed Canadians by voting against measures that we have brought forward to reinforce the CFIA.”

Here, Bob Rae stood and sagely posed a simple question: When was the Prime Minister first informed of the e.coli outbreak? When the Prime Minister declined to so enlighten the interim Liberal leader, Mr. Rae narrowed the discussion to a matter of grammar.

“Mr. Speaker, the problem is that last week the Minister of Agriculture stood in this place and said, ‘We have actually done a tremendous job.’ Last week, when he thought everything was hunky-dory, he took all the credit for what had taken place,” Mr. Rae recounted. “What a contrast with yesterday, when the Minister of National Defence said: ‘The Minister of Agriculture will continue to hold those responsible for food safety accountable.’ ”

The problem was apparently a matter of pronouns.

“What a contrast,” Mr. Rae observed. “We have gone from ‘we’ to ‘they.’ ‘We’ have disappeared. ‘We’ have gone out the window. Now it is ‘they.’ ”

A few moments later, the NDP’s Peggy Nash was chastising the government side for a variety of alleged budget cuts: to food security, support for members of the armed forces and municipal emergency preparedness. For a few seconds there was neither we nor they as the Conservative side seemed unsure as to who was to stand and face these charges. Finally it was John Baird, who, despite having nothing to do with any of the issues raised, jumped up and, apparently off the top of his head, spouted six sentences of pitch-perfect talking points about the depths of the NDP’s moral bankruptcy and the exceeding greatness of the government’s management (pumping his fist and jabbing his finger and chopping his hand as he went).

If the ultimate responsibility of a minister in the British parliamentary system is an ability and a willingness to demonstrate as such, there is surely no more responsible minister than Mr. Baird.

The Stats. Food safety, 15 questions. Employment insurance, foreign investment and aboriginal affairs, four questions each. The budget, emergency preparedness, ethics and small business, two questions each. The War of 1812, foreign aid, crime and the Canada Revenue Agency, one question each.

Pierre Lemieux, nine responses. Stephen Harper, six responses. Diane Finley and John Duncan, four responses each. Christian Paradis, three responses. Vic Toews, Tony Clement, Ed Fast and Pierre Poilievre, two responses each. John Baird, James Moore, Maxime Bernier, Julian Fantino and Cathy McLeod, one response each.