Monday, September 29, 2008

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz in hiding; Globe and Mail said MP should have been fired or resigned, National Post & StarPhoenix attack party leaders

“[T]here are only so many times Prime Minister Stephen Harper can signal his disappointment with his party’s ministers and staff before questions must be raised about just what sort of environment they are working in. Mr. Ritz should have been fired or resigned as soon as his comments came to light, if only to send a message that such conduct will no longer be tolerated.”
The Globe and Mail, September 19, 2008

“If Harper is the right kind of person to run this country, he’s got to do the right thing and get rid of this minister. Simple as that.”
– Dennis Schroh, Swift Current resident and son of Elizabeth Schroh who contracted the strain of listeriosis linked to the Maple Leaf recall and died Aug. 24, 2008

“Minister Ritz has repeatedly disappointed the professional scientists and inspectors who work for him during the listeria crisis…The comments he apologized for are the last straw. Crisis requires real leadership and Mr. Ritz is clearly not fit to lead.”
– Michele Demers, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

“Gerry Ritz should resign.”
– Val Meredith, a former Canadian Alliance party MP
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Gerry Ritz seems to have disappeared.

The Saskatoon StarPhoenix is reporting that the “suddenly invisible incumbent isn’t returning media calls or making public appearances since apologizing recently for joking about listeriosis deaths.”

The newspaper “made six requests for interviews with Ritz since he made his apology” but the “closest his campaign team has come to granting a request was to offer answers to agriculture-related questions through his Ottawa staff.”

Since his public apology, Ritz has also declined interviews with media in the riding. The Battlefords News-Optimist requested a comment from Ritz and received only an e-mail text of his apology, said editor Becky Doig. [Ritz stronghold under siege (StarPhoenix, Sept. 26, 2008)]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t know where his agriculture minister is hiding. When asked on Sept. 23 why the minister wasn’t standing beside his boss during one of Harper’s rare visits to Saskatchewan, the PM responded he had no idea where Ritz had gone. [Paging Mr. Ritz (StarPhoenix, Sept. 27, 2008)]

In a recent editorial The Globe and Mail called Ritz’s comments “offensive” and said he “should have been fired or resigned as soon as his comments came to light, if only to send a message that such conduct will no longer be tolerated.”

“As the lead minister on the crisis, officials at the meeting would have looked to Mr. Ritz to set the tone and to get a read on just how seriously the government of Canada was taking the matter. Judging from Mr. Ritz’s decision to make light of the listeriosis outbreak, they could have reasonably concluded that the answer was, not very seriously at all,” the national newspaper said. [More than a joke (TheGlobe and Mail, Sept. 19, 2008)]

The National Post, meanwhile, could only bring itself to call Ritz’s comments “thoughtless” and “ill-advised.” Rather than call for his firing or resignation Canada’s other national newspaper said “it’s time to start taking this election seriously” and that the “election should be about substantive issues of concern to voters” and not “wisecracks about tainted cold cuts.”

The Post seemed more concerned with what might happen to the Conservatives if voters were to start taking a closer look at Harper and his team.

“The greatest danger in this so-far ridiculous battle is for the Tories, because they have the most to lose. The majority they so crave could slip through their fingers if their gaffes cause voters to think of them as arrogant or unworthy to govern,” the editorial said. [Election immaturity (National Post, Sept. 22, 2008) ]

It should be noted that the National Post has twice endorsed Stephen Harper for prime minister the first on June 23, 2004, and the second on Jan. 19, 2006. It’s likely only a matter of days before the newspaper publicly supports him for a third time.

Closer to home the Conservative-friendly Saskatoon StarPhoenix called Ritz’s comments “twisted” “warped” “disturbing” and “disgraceful,” but then incredibly said “worse has been the reaction of the opposition parties.”

The editorial board said “all opposition party leaders feigned injury and called for Mr. Ritz’s head” and “What’s of greater concern than Mr. Ritz’s gallows humour is the apparent inability of rival politicians to address the issues in the most dire need of attention.” [Trivial pursuits (StarPhoenix, Sept. 19, 2008)]

At last count the death toll from the listeriosis outbreak has reached 19. Neither the National Post nor the StarPhoenix mention the families of the victims in their editorials and what pain Ritz’s comments might have caused.

According to various media reports the following appear to be the key facts in the Ritz case:

– During an Aug. 30, 2008, conference call with scientists, bureaucrats and political staff about the listeriosis scare Ritz resorted to gallows humour about the political dangers of the crisis saying: “This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts.”

The disease was linked to cold cuts from Maple Leaf Meats.

And when told about a new death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said: “Please tell me it’s (Liberal MP) Wayne Easter.”

Easter is the Liberal critic shadowing Ritz’s Agriculture Department.

– We know Ritz said these things because sources “took notes during the call.”

– About 30 people participated in the Sunday morning conference call that began after 10 a.m. EDT.

– Others on the call included communications staff from the prime minister’s office, most of Ritz’s staff, Health Minister Tony Clement’s policy and communications advisers, and senior public servants including deputy health minister Morris Rosenberg.

– Officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency provided updates on the disease during the conversation.

– Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been relentless in searching for and punishing anyone thought to have provided embarrassing information to reporters.

– Kory Teneycke, a spokesman for the prime minister, said Ritz’s remarks were beyond the pale and “clearly inappropriate.” They were “intended as a joke, but some things are not appropriate to joke about.”

– Sources say the Privy Council Office requested and chaired the conference call. This call was chaired by Daniel Jean, the deputy secretary to cabinet in the Privy Council Office.

That office, headed by Kevin Lynch, co-ordinates government policy and harnesses that policy to the formidable power of the public service. [Minister apologizes for ‘tasteless’ listeria jokes (Toronto Star, Sept. 17, 2008)]

– Teneycke told reporters that senior PMO officials “learned” of the comments through the news report on Sept. 17, 2008.

– Teneycke said Harper reacted with “concern. It’s clearly inappropriate. No one is defending the remarks.”

– Teneycke said Harper did not speak to Ritz, the Conservative MP for the Saskatchewan riding of Battlefords-Lloydminster, and “I have no expectation of him resigning.” [Minister sorry for ‘tasteless’ listeria jokes (Toronto Star, Sept. 18, 2008)]

– Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Ritz did the right thing by quickly apologizing, and should not have to resign.

– Harper said the conference call was “a private conversation.”

– Harper spoke to Ritz on Sept. 17, 2008, after a speech in Chicoutimi. Teneycke said “no resignation was offered and none was asked for” during that call.

Ritz refused comment when first approached by reporters at the Ottawa airport on Sept. 17, 2008, when he arrived for a political rally in the Nepean-Carleton riding.

He did apologize at that rally of Conservative supporters — which PMO staff said was a “public” apology, but ran away when reporters, notified late, asked him to repeat it on camera. Ritz was then later ordered to meet the media late last night in Ottawa and register the apology more publicly.

Teneycke said “we think at least one” PMO staff member was on the call, and could not explain why the matter had not been raised any earlier.

Teneycke advised Harper of the damning remarks just before Harper delivered a speech in Saguenay. [PM rejects resignation calls (Toronto Star, Sept. 18, 2008)]

– Harper, campaigning in Quebec on Sept. 19, 2008, expressed sympathy for the victims but stood by Ritz.

“Minister Ritz clearly did not intend to make any such comments publicly and has thoroughly apologized.” [Clamour grows for Ritz's removal from cabinet (StarPhoenix, Sept. 19, 2008)]

A few unanswered questions remain:

– Approximately 30 people took part in the conference call. How many individuals need to be involved in a private conservation before it can be considered public?

– Of Ritz’s comments, Harper spokesman Kory Teneycke said “No one is defending the remarks.” But they’re defending Ritz. How is it possible to separate the remarks from the person making them?

– Are we really supposed to believe that it took 18 days for Harper, a notorious control freak, to find out about Ritz’s comments, and then it was only because the media reported them?

– Whose idea was it to have Ritz make his “public” apology at a Conservative rally in the Nepean-Carleton riding and notify the media late?

– Why did Ritz have to be forced to make a public apology and who ordered him to do it?

– Has Ritz been told not to do interviews? If so, who gave that order?

– Harper said Ritz “clearly did not intend to make such comments publicly.” Does this mean it’s acceptable for a cabinet minister to say such things privately?

– Exactly when did Harper talk to Ritz? The story Minister sorry for ‘tasteless’ listeria jokes, by Tonda MacCharles of the Toronto Star’s Ottawa Bureau, was dated Sept. 18, 2008, and posted at 4:30AM. It noted “Teneycke said Harper did not speak to Ritz.”

A second story by MacCharles called PM rejects resignation calls was posted by the Toronto Star on Sept. 18, 2008, at 1:43PM. It reported Teneycke saying “Harper spoke to Ritz last night, after a speech in Chicoutimi.”

– Teneycke said “we think at least one” PMO staff member was on the call, and could not explain why the matter had not been raised any earlier. It’s been more than ten days since the story broke, has the government since then been able to determine how many PMO staff members took part in the call and can it now explain why the matter had not been raised earlier?

– Are Harper and his operatives still searching for the person(s) that leaked the story?


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