Gerry Ritz will be a tough act to follow as agriculture minister. During his eight years in the portfolio, he flew around the globe promoting Canadian farm and food products more times than anyone can count.
He was tireless in trying to convince the agriculture and food sectors to act like partners in one of Canada’s most significant industries. He was well respected among farm organizations as well as the myriad of organizations involved in the food and beverage sector.
Despite his accomplishments and the support he gathered in the agri-food sector, he rarely received the credit he deserved from his own government. After all he did to promote the would-be Canada-Europe free trade deal, he wasn’t included in the herd of ministers who announced its completion. He did get more recognition for his efforts during the Trans-Pacific Partnership marathon.
From a personal perspective, Ritz was remarkable in that unlike most of his prickly Harper cabinet colleagues, he retained a sense of humour and was always civil in dealings with the media, political opponents and critics. Even near the end of the interminable Oct. 19 election campaign, he managed to slip a few good one-liners in during the CFA’s agriculture issues.
A sense of humour is a rare commodity in politics but he ranked with Don Jamieson and Herb Gray in finding the amusing side of many issues.
His description of the 2008 listeria crisis as “death from a thousand cold cuts” still rankles people. It was delivered during a meeting of federal officials who were developing a plan to respond to the crisis and was leaked by a union official. He was attempting to relieve the tension in the meeting. Whatever the circumstances, it was a humorous remark.
However, it should have never happened because he shouldn’t have been in on the call. During the BSE crisis in 2003, Liberal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief left such briefings to Agriculture Canada and CFIA officials. It was an example of how the Harper government meddled far too much for its own good.
It was also far too hung up on its ideology, and that cut off two initiatives Ritz could have taken putting his hard-earned respect in the sector to good use.
One was in October 2013 when CN president Claude Mongeau rang the alarm about a massive Prairie crop that would require a lot of co-operation to ship. Two months later Ritz was still insisting the grain was moving when it wasn’t. The Harperites believed the market would solve all problems.
Ritz should have jumped on Mongeau’s comment to convene a meeting that fall of farm groups, grain companies and the railways to resolve the transportation problems. He could have done it and in fact did the following February by which time much damage had been done.
The other was supply management. The dairy version has been around for 40 years and the poultry boards aren’t far behind. They were designed for a much different agriculture than we now have. Ritz could have used his good standing with the boards to have the Commons or Senate agriculture committee take a long hard look at what works in supply management and what doesn’t. This should be an exercise in determining what changes are needed to make supply management relevant to 2020, not 1970.
Of course, even if he had wanted to take either initiative, there’s no guarantee the cabinet would have backed him. Probably wouldn’t have.
Hopefully the history books will give Gerry his due as one of the country’s most significant agriculture ministers. Hopefully, he will also set a good example for future politicians on how to act as an MP and cabinet minister.