Ritzeria redux: Liveblogging the Agriculture committee

POSTMEETING MICRORECAP: Well, as it turns out, we’re going to get that public inquiry into that listeriosis outbreak after all! Well, sort of: it’s going to be a parliamentary committee (actually, to be precise, a subcommittee, and much, much more about that later) and it will investigate food safety – past, present and future – including, but not limited to, what happened last summer.

For the full liveblog, hit the jump.

This one could get lively, y’all. Opposition members have apparently joined forces to push through a motion to investigate last summer’s listeriosis outbreak. What’s that, you say? The Prime Minister has already promised to do just that, and even appointed a lead investigator, albeit months after his initial pledge?

Yeah, well, apparently, that’s not good enough for these agri-agitators, who have a hankering to hold public hearings into exactly what went down. We won’t get to hear from any witnesses today, but we will get a sense of whether the government is prepared to let this one go forward without a fight.

10:59:56 AM
We’re back! At least, ITQ is back; the Public Safety committee, however, has been replaced by Agriculture, and I’m not actually sure if I’m supposed to be in the room at the moment, since the notice said that the first part of the meeting was supposed to take place in camera. Don’t worry, though – the debate over motions, including the much-anticipated listeriosis hearings.

11:06:02 AM
Okay, turns out it *was* in camera, and I’ve been temporarily removed, but during my very, very slow walk from my seat to the door, I managed to overhear a motion to open it up, so — and there we go. I’m back in the room.

11:08:56 AM

Isn’t this fun?

Due to that bout of back-and-forthing, I missed how it started, but there appears to be a bit of confusion over the motions on the table today. Hey, Blake Richards is on this committee too? He and I are having an oddly synchronized morning.

11:11:20 AM
Okay, as usual, I don’t have copies of the motions – honestly, would it be that difficult to post them on the website? – but Mark Eyking notes that there was some agreement, at least, on how to deal with the various scenarios for listeriosis hearings, which are, at the moment, the committee’s first priority. Two meetings, however, may not be enough, and there seems to be some sort of scheme to turn the entire committee into a subcommittee solely for the purpose of holding as many hearings as necessary without tying up other committee business.

11:16:56 AM
Pierre Lemieux pipes up to aver that he believes listeriosis is a “very important issue”, but he thinks the committee has to look forward as well, since it is food safety that most concerns Canadians. Listeriosis would be an example of that, but he wants the study to be more broad, with a study that would cover *more* than just listeriosis. Unfortunately, he doesn’t actually have a written amendment to that effect, but he agrees with the chair that it’s a good idea, and begins writing busily. In his head, that is.

11:21:26 AM
After *more* quizzing by the chair, Lemieux eventually proposes that the word “listeriosis” be replaced by “food safety”. Andre Bellavance, however, is getting cranky with all this preemptive amending: He wants to discuss the motion first, and worry about the report afterwards.

The chair – Larry Miller, for the record – invites Alex Atamenko to introduce his motion, which he does. Basically, it would establish a subcommittee, and it passes. Van Eyking expresses relief that the meeting is now “back on track,” and Lemieux puts forward his amendment to change the wording – and it’s on.

11:27:26 AM
It turns out that the opposition parties are actually fine with the proposal to expand the study to food safety, although in his comments, Wayne Easter takes a few shots at the government for failing to set up an inquiry process “with teeth” to investigate the outbreak; his main concern is that the Agriculture committee remain in control of the subcommittee, even if members from Health are subbed in.

Bellavance, however, points out that the committee may be “clouding the issue” if it expands the focus — witnesses could talk about everything *but* listeriosis, thereby defeating the purpose, which is doing what the Weatherill inquiry is unable.

11:32:31 AM
Brian Storseth can’t just sit back and let Easter’s comments about the existing inquiry stand unchallenged: If he has doubts about her ability to look into the outbreak, perhaps he should invite Weatherill to appear before the committee to find out if she feels the same way. Easter – and others – look thoughtful.

He also warns the opposition that creating a subcommittee could lead to the committee “losing control” – why, it could even report to the House directly, like a rogue parliamentary budget officer!  Atamanko points out that actually, the motion would explicitly state that the subcommittee *wouldn’t* be able to do that, but Storseth is not convinced.

11:37:50 AM
Eventually, the chair has to intervene to gently point out to Storseth that a subcommittee can never report directly to the House, and the discussion then moves on; Bev Shipley is of the mind that you can’t delve into something like food safety without looking back, and *he* wants the full committee to investigate, not just a subcommittee – that’s what the Canadian people deserve, in his opinion.

11:41:01 AM
The chair wants to make absolutely sure that Atamenko accepts the proposal to change the wording as a “friendly amendment”; he prefers “healthy compromise”, but concurs.

11:43:05 AM
Bellavance wants to make sure that the subcommittee would include twelve members, and would report back to the main committee; the clerk – Jean-Francois; the members seem to be on a first name basis with him, which is always nice to see – confirms that this is the case. Now I understand why the earlier media reports on exactly what the opposition wanted were so confusing, with references to setting up a “parliamentary panel” and equally vague terms; this is the first time I’ve heard of a subcommittee with as many members as a permanent committee, let alone members from another committee as associate members.

11:47:56 AM
After somewhat unnecessarily informing the committee that the clerk is, of course, right about subcommittees not being allowed to report to the House, Brian Storseth introduces a subamendment that would ensure the membership of the subcommittee maintains the same proportions as the main committee, and will be chaired by a member of the government; at this point, Easter seems to have gotten fed up with “the whole subcommittee business” – ITQ sympathizes – and wonders if the main committee shouldn’t perhaps just hold more meetings instead.

11:52:51 AM
Alright, we’re now back to the main motion – or, at least, Wayne Easter’s amendment to not bother with the subcommittee gambit; he seems to have found an ally in Pierre Lemieux, who agrees that if the members agree that this is important to the Agriculture committee, it would be a shame to strike a subcommittee that many of its members wouldn’t be able to attend, what with scheduling conflicts and the like. Don’t you love crosspartisan consensus?

11:57:44 AM
I should note that there is considerable scurrying taking place amongst staffers from various parties, which is probably the secret behind the surprisingly smooth progress of what could have been a contentious debate.

11:59:14 AM
Okay, maybe I spoke too soon: Atamenko absolutely, positively does not want to give up on the subcommittee idea; he notes that there are many, many other issues of importance to farmers and Canadians – beef, program review, all that stuff – and he doesn’t want that work to be stalled by a study that is already scheduled to run until June.

Eyking, however, reminds him that this, too, is an important issue — after all, twenty people died during last summer’s outbreak, he just wants the committee to be aware that this might take more than a couple of meetings.

12:02:38 PM
Just as the chair is about to call the vote, Storseth suggests that they suspend for five minutes to “straighten this out”. Miller doesn’t exactly look overly optimistic that resolution is at hand, at least as far as the subcommittee, but does so.

12:03:45 PM
Not surprisingly, as soon as the gavel dropped, the negotiations began — Pierre Lemieux, having established himself as official go-between, heads over to the opposition side of the table, where he and Wayne Easter attempt to pacify the increasingly frantic and hand-wavy Atamenko.

12:08:30 PM
Okay, now almost everyone has surrounded Atamenko, who looks increasingly like the target of an intervention; I can’t hear exactly what they’re saying – and it might be over the line as far as liveblogging etiquette to strain to do so – but it looks as though everyone is willing to support the idea of holding the hearings into food safety except the guy who actually proposed the motion to do so.

To be fair, I understand his objection — he doesn’t want to be blamed if the hearings stretch for weeks, or even months, and the government takes shots at the opposition for not focusing on the *real* issues, whichever those may be.

12:14:49 PM
And we’re back – there appears to be some sort of agreement on how to proceed, but I’m not sure what it will involve. Isn’t this exciting? All these amendments and subamendments!

12:17:08 PM
Storseth has reintroduced his amendment on the makeup of the subcommittee – does that mean we’re going back to the original motion? Nobody seems entirely sure, but Storseth points out that it “seems to be the direction you guys are going,” and promises that he’s not trying to do anything sneaky with his motion; although Easter assures him that he believes him, he still wants the clerk to read the motion, as putatively amended, just to be sure. Trust, but verify.

Lemieux, however, wants to know if Easter is going to go ahead with his motion to kick the whole thing back to the main committee, and the answer is no – no, he won’t. Subcommittee ahoy!

12:24:22 PM
Hey, an entirely new motion from Brian Storseth that has nothing at all to do with listeriosis: He thinks the committee should look at possible changes to the Competition Act in light of the Global Economic Crisis, and Easter suggests that instead, they could invite someone to brief the committee on the many, many changes proposed in the most recent budget, which the chair thinks is a good idea.

12:28:13 PM
Okay, you know what? It looks like most of these motions are to do with future business – competitiveness, that sort of thing – and are fairly non-contentious, so I’m going to sneak out early. I know, I know – if procedural – or actual – fisticuffs break out, I’ll never forgive myself, and I promise not to make a habit of it.

12:41:11 PM
Okay, so I had packed away the BlackBerries and was in mid-coat-and-hattifying when suddenly, the committee became briefly noncooperative – in fact, downright combative – over a proposal to make the competitiveness study the top priority for the committee, which the opposition members voted down but quick, what with realizing that it could be used to trump the two hearings into food safety that the main committee is supposed to hold before the issue goes to subcommittee.

This results in some hurt feelings on the other side of the room, at least some of which appear to be based on a misunderstanding; eventually, Pierre Lemieux, of all people, plays peacemaker and withdraws the amendment, and the rest of the meeting is, for the most part, uneventful, which is lucky, because ITQ’s thumbs are too tired for a sudden outburst of eventfulness, frankly.

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