With all due respect, it might be best not to warm up the crowd with a joke, Minister: Liveblogging Gerry Ritz at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture debate

That is, if he shows up — although recent revelations that Gerry Ritz was bullied into running herd on the listeria outbreak by PMO apparatchiks would suggest that the minister will have very little choice in the matter. Hopefully this time, someone will have scrounged up some “information and lines”, however, so that Ritz isn’t forced to break out his improv comedy routine.  Full details on today’s debate available here, courtesy of the CFA, which is hosting today’s showdown.

10:41:11 AM
Well, so far, this is about as far as you can imagine from yesterday’s standing-room-only-and-barely-that all-candidates’ forum in Ottawa Centre — I’m at the Chateau Laurier, feeling distinctly underdressed in the tony confines of the Drawing Room.
At the front of the room, five lecterns in matching matte silver stand awaiting the stars of today’s show, but outside the front doors, a throng of cameras awaits only one: Gerry Ritz, Agriculture Minister and amateur comedian, who hasn’t been spotted in public since that awkward moment outside Confederation Building, where he read out a pre-written apology for his foray into gallows humour without betraying a glimmer of emotion. After delivering his muted mea culpa, Ritz promptly vanished into the cornfield where PMO banishes potentially troublesome minister — only to reappear yesterday evening as the likely unwilling star of a second Canadian Press exclusive.

Given what we now know of the power of PMO to compel even the most reluctant ministers to drag themselves before the media, the only question leading up to this debate – which promises to cover a wide range of issues related to agriculture, from farm aid to food safety – was whether the War Room would decide to send him to face his political rivals: Liberal Wayne Easter and the NDP’s Tony Martin. From what we understand, they did. We’ll see if that turns out to have been the right call in — oh, five minutes or so.

10:57:14 AM
Apparently, the questions aren’t going to be live – at least, not in realtime, and not from this particular audience. Instead, they’ve been prerecorded, and will appear on a screen behind the debaters. There are definitely a number of actual, working farmers in the room – as well as lobbyists, activists, and political staff.
Soundcheck. I love the hum of an audio system being tuned. It’s like listening to an orchestra warm up.

10:59:23 AM
He’s here! Gerry Ritz, that is – he sidled up to the stage while I was craning my neck to see around the tall person directly in front of me. They’re all here, in fact — Ritz, Easter, Martin and the Greens’ agriculture critic, whose name I have forgotten.

11:00:33 AM
Format – videos, then each candidate gets to respond, followed by four minutes of debate. The moderator, Hugh Meyner (which is probably misspelled) has a comfortingly British Accent.

The Green candidate is Kate Storey, it transpires, and she’s running in Dauphin, which poor Moderator mangles, and is politely corrected.

11:03:01 AM
Gerry Ritz is up first, and he’s downright chipper, reading his talking points with an enthusiasm distinctly at odds from his most recent appearance. He divides his time equally between lauding his government’s performance and sneering at the opposition, particularly the Liberals. A rah-rah for giving farmers the freedom to market their own wheat, and a shoutout to the carbon tax. He pronounce Stephane Dion in a very Gallic way, interestingly — stePHAUN Dion. Conservatives, he concludes, will always put farmers first.

11:05:30 AM
Wayne Easter notes that agriculture policy “goes to the heart” of what a national government should be, by using revenue to help farmers, and make Canada “stronger than the sum of its parts,” while Stephen Harper has “shown the opposite view” – lessening the responsibility for food safety. “This is a government – the Harper government – that has clearly failed the farm community,” he says, before moving to a broadside on the Conservatives for “breaking every rule” in its efforts to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board.

Also, he really does say “agga-culture”. I think that must be a Prince Edward Islandian quirk, but I’d never noticed it until someone pointed out.

Liberals will invest in green farming, protect supply management, hold a full review on the rail system *and* bring in an immediate moratorium on short line closures.

11:08:38 AM
Kate Storey is proud to be here today to represent the Greens – and she’s a farmer: a “real farmer”. Organic. Naturally. No pun intended. She wants to be able to enjoy farming without an outside job or “crushing debt”, and she doesn’t think much of the “Growing Forward” plan pitched by the government – it’s just more of the same “Liberal-Conservative” attitude.

The Green Party, she says, has a plan – support for “orderly cooperative marketing”, encouraging young farmers, and revitalizing local communities with fair – emphasis hers – trade.

11:12:14 AM
Finally, Tony Martin, who has heard from real farmers – although he doesn’t claim to *be* one – that nothing much has changed between the Liberal and Tory governments.
They – these farmers – like the NDP’s cap and trade plan, not “another tax.” “Jack remembers Brian Mulroney selling out farmers for free trade,” Martin tells us. He moves onto the Conservatives ‘giving the store away’ with billions in corporate tax cuts, and ends his statement with a round of platform boosting.

11:15:05 AM
And now, a video from Betty Green Cruz, a fruits and vegetables producer in Ontario. She doesn’t find the Growing Forward framework to be “adequate,” and notes that the Ontario Agriculture Association has proposed the “Agriflex” concept, which would improve it. She also wonders whether the parties would expand production insurance for all commodities.

11:16:50 AM
First up, Wayne Easter, who says the question “goes to the key of where the next government will be” in listening to farmers. He addresses the questioner as if she’s actually present – which, since this is being broadcast live on CPAC, is possible, in a virtual sense – and says that what he wants to see under “Agriflex” is both national programs, and regional programs adapted to specific names. He takes a shot at Ritz for adopting Liberal programs, but only changing the name, and agrees that federal resources have to go into these programs.

11:20:11 AM
Interesting, Storey comes close to criticizing the notion that more production is better, and gives the room a brief lesson on supply and demand. She dismisses the idea of increasing subsidies for production, and insists what really has to be done is for family farms to be supported more directly, not a small group of large agricorporations.

11:21:48 AM
Martin seems a little flustered, although he vows that he’ll also support “controlled cooperative marketing.”

11:22:25 AM
Ritz seems to have encountered “Betty Jean” before — he’s discussed this issues with her in the past, and “she knows” that the government is looking at “the idea” of agriflex programs. He takes a backhanded shot at the Liberals with an approving quote from former CFA president Bob Friesen, who is now running for that party.

11:24:15 AM
Okay, now intracandidate debate, starting with Wayne Easter, who wants to put farmers’ needs before trade needs. “If we don’t have the programming in place for farmers to survive economically, it’s all for naught.”

11:26:40 AM
Tony Martin tries to explain why agriflex is good, but “not enough”, and Ritz says he’s “happy to jump in” with — more highlights from his government’s recording, including “expanded slaughter facilities” — even in PEI! Storey, bravely, takes him on – in a somewhat flustered way; she’s clearly not used to this sort of formal fiveway debate – and accuses both the Liberals and the Conservatives of failing to support farmers like her.

11:28:29 AM
A question in French from New Brunswick – no simultaneous interpretation, so you’ll have to trust my somewhat scattered translation skills. It seems to have something to do with transfer money from the government, and whether it happens soon enough.

Oh, bless him, the moderator will summarize the question – fair and reasonable farm succession system for Canadian farmers — what will the parties do to ensure one — encouraging young farmers to stick around by not saddling them with huge debt, and finally, retirement with “dignity” for older farmers.

Storey begins, and – you know, she’s probably at least my age, and maybe a bit older, but she sounds exactly like a student politician or model parliamentarian. Very big on the emphasis-filled slogans, lots of almost frantically eager eye contact with the audience.

Oh, her plan? Or rather, the Greens’ plan? Something about setting up a federal agency to manage estate transfers in an ordinary way — which the banks, she notes with obvious satisfaction — “wouldn’t like”, since it would prevent them from adding more debt — and wonders why neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have come up with such an “elegant plan.”

Weird. I wonder why she’s not going after the NDP? Wouldn’t that make more sense, given the popularity the NDP enjoys in some closely-fought rural ridings?

11:35:16 AM
Speaking of the NDP, Tony Martin once again tries to segue back to his party’s platform, and Gerry Ritz reminds everyone that his party cut the GST by two percent. Oh, and he, too, brings up the proposal to provide voluntary employment insurance coverage for families. It’s not quite as hideously tactless as McGarry’s gambit last night, but honestly, if you’re trying to sell this idea of hope and growth and job security, I’m not sure why you’d bring up employment insurance.

Wayne Easter agrees that income security is “key” – as well as all sorts of other things, including capital gains exemptions and other succession-related taxes.

11:38:44 AM

The moderator offers Storey the chance to explain the whole third party agency for farm succession, and she — sort of flails. Sorry, she may have her heart in the right place, but this candidate is clearly in way over her head. She tries to nibble at Wayne Easter, in a halting and halfhearted way, and eventually the Moderator comes to her rescue, and tries desperately to get her back on topic. Somehow, this results in Tony Martin — who Storey has basically ignored up until now — getting a free shot to talk about the dangers of subsidies, and children moving off the farm and never coming back.

11:42:57 AM
Did you know the carbon tax will “rip the heart and soul out of the farm community”? Because it will, according to Ritz, who manages to provoke Easter into an impassioned defence of the Green Shift, which is about the future. Young farmers, he says, are *concerned* about climate change, and they don’t want to hear more “propaganda” from the Harper government.

11:44:34 AM
The Moderator looks a little annoyed – apparently the next “presentation” is about the environment. “We’ve gone a little off topic from farm succession,” he scolds the panelists.

Well, he’s sort of right – it’s an open-endy question about “environmental stewardship” from Winnipeg, but that’s enough for Tony Martin to get his digs in at the carbon tax – which “won’t be helpful” – and once again points to his party’s platform, which would ban “terminator seeds.” I just love that name. Such good scarebranding.

Gerry Ritz goes into a tangent about the miracle that is GPS — very helpful for those who “farm by the mile” — as well as environmentally friendly pesticides and other technologies. “Again folks, we’re talking about environmental stewardship” — and a carbon tax will just make the bills go up.

Wayne Easter’s turn to tout the platform, which he does. “The challenge of this century is to address climate change,” he says. The Liberal plan will give more back to the farm community while reducing dependency on fossil fuels.

Last word – “and we didn’t plan this,” the Moderator jokes lightly – goes to the Green Party. Mild laughter from the audience, who, like me, probably feel somewhat disconnected from the proceedings. I don’t know if this is the most effective format, really – it feels so sterile, and there’s so little interaction between the candidates, and none with questioners, who are not live but Betamax.

11:53:03 AM
And now, four minutes of debate, and Tony Martin calls the hostility between government and environmental groups “unhelpful.” His party also supports renewable fuels. Now it’s over to Easter – who I guess was the target of Martin’s criticism, because he’s now tearing into the NDP and Conservative — sorry, “Harperites”‘ platform. In Turning the Corner, he points out, the government proposes putting a cost on carbon as well — would anyone believe that won’t have an impact on the economy? And why won’t any money be returned to the farmers?

Ritz notes that it was his department that funded pilot projects on land management, to find out what would be required. “We’ve put a lot of effort into biofuels,” he points out – ethanol and biodiesel – and then moves back to what is clearly his comfort zone: the “tax everything that moves” proposal by the Liberals, and its dubious claim to revenue neutralit. “Ever heard of the gun registry,” he quips.

Uh, that was kind of the opposite, though – it was supposed to be revenue neutral, but wound up costing over a billion – almost none of which came from registration fees. What Ritz is claiming is that the carbon tax will bring in *more* revenue, but from actual consumers.

12:00:07 PM
A question on trade, which is clearly second only to the evils of the Green Shift on Ritzs’ preferred topic list, and he once again points to his govermnent’s efforts – the Conservatives are known, he notes, as “the party of free trade”, even though he admits it was the Liberal government that actually signed Canada onto NAFTA.

Easter takes issue with the Conservatives’ apparent lack of mettle for a trade war – or at least a rousing trade defence – and condemns sentiments like that advocated by Chuck Strahl, who, he recalls, admitted that even if the WTO comes up with a bad deal, “We’ll sign it anyway.”

Storey goes after those evil banks again, and vows that a Green government will renegotiate NAFTA to ensure that it works *for* farmers.

Add in another scattershot attack on past “Liberal and Conservative governments” — does she realize she’s not running for the NDP? — and it’s on to Martin, who now sounds like he’s just repeating her lines when he takes the traditional NDP position of savaging the Liberals and the Tories. Farmers want someone who will “stand up for their interests,” he says.

12:07:17 PM
Gerry Ritz, who clearly can’t believe his luck at making it past the halfway point without a single question on food safety, pokes Easter with a sharp stick over Liberal support for supply management, and gets the outburst that he had to know was imminent. Easter mocks the idea that this PM would ever listen to the views of the House of Commons, as suggested by Ritz would be the process employed for any future trade agreement, and excoriates the government for its dismissal of democracy. The moderator actually has to step in to separate the combatants, who glare at their respective shoes during the intermission in which the Green Party candidate rambles on about double standards.

12:10:48 PM
And there we go – food safety. Finally. Every non-agriculture-specific reporter looks relieved, including your liveblogger.

Wayne Easter gets first crack at it, and notes, somewhat wistfully, that this should be a “defining” issue, and lists his own party’s efforts to get to the truth behind the “secret memo” on CFIA cutbacks. He blames Harper for plotting to pull the government out of the governing business, and is the first to mention the L-word. (No, not that L-word, sadly, which would definitely liven things up.”

12:14:35 PM
Somewhat cheekily, Jennifer Story suggests that self-regulation by industry “doesn’t work” – if it did, why not bring in “self-regulating income tax,” which produces an almost imperceptible titter from the audience. The Green Party has all sorts of ideas, most of which involve putting locals in charge of inspecting meat, because — they’re more likely to eat it? Really?

Tony Martin agrees, and says that listeria is “so serious” – at least the current outbreak — that his party has called for “Gerry” to resign. Gerry sips his water and tries to look unbothered. He blames the Liberals for being just as bad, and then hands the floor over to Ritz, who – by truly serendipitous timing – delivers the highlights of a “Just The Facts” email blast from his party’s war room that literally *just* appeared in my inbox. It blames the Liberals – I know! The shock! – for cutting the budget for food inspection, which Easter calls “messaging over fact before reading the highlights from the latest bulletin from *his* war room.

I think what we really need is a debate between the war rooms. It would be like Reach for the Top, only upside down!

12:20:30 PM
Easter savages Ritz for the “failures” of the Harper regime, makes an acerbic reference to the minister’s comments on his death, and generally goes off on a tear — until Tony Martin interrupts him to blame both of them – or at least, their respective parties – for the current crisis.

“You’re all getting a lot of mileage blaming each other,” snips Storey, who apparently hasn’t been listening to her own answers. She then rambles through the rest of her interjection in a now familiar borderline-condescending way, and eventually proposes that “we need more meat inspectors.”


12:26:22 PM
Another French question – headphones on, everyone! – on protection for supply management, specifically marketing agencies. Will the parties continue to support them, and the underlying principles? The Green Party will, farmers will be relieved to know. On the CWB, not all may agree with the CWB monopoly, but they want a “fair vote” – it’s her board, and her business. “Gerry,” she says, in the most awkward and contrived way, “Get your hands off our Wheat Board.” Ritz is torn between ignoring her, and delivering a fake smile and a matter of fact expression of support for her point, and goes for the second.

12:30:10 PM
After Martin reads more from the NDP platform, Ritz praises the ability of farmers to market their own products – they know best, he notes. He brings up some — rather curious statistics involving purported support for barley marketing outside the CWB – and invites farmers to check out his party’s record.

Wayne Easter accuses the government of unleashing “a vicious attack” on the Wheat Board, directed from the heart of the PMO, and dismisses the vote as the result of “a manipulated ballot.” The Conservatives have fired directors, illegally gagged the CWB, “tampered” with voting lists, used numbered ballots, and – wow, when you list them one after another like that, it really does sound a bit questionable, as far as respecting the democratic process.

12:34:32 PM
Storey used to be a pig farmer, y’all, but when the Manitoba government eliminated the single desk system, she could no longer sell her pork – wait, or is it still considered “pig” before being slaughtered? – because she was just too small a producer to satisfy the demands of the processors.

12:36:11 PM
Ritz tries out a different strategy — he counters each of the other candidates’ arguments, one after another, which results in a steady buzz of furious rebuttal noises by the end of his response. He also tells Storey that, as an organic farmer, she should be exempt from the CWB requirements, which she flatly contradicts. “I know the rules,” she tells him.

Another format problem – Sticking to the same order for the whole debate is a bad idea. They should have reversed it at the halfway point, or something like that, because this way, the person who goes last – Ritz, as it happens – always has the last word, and none of the other candidates can rebut his rebuttals.

12:40:25 PM
And – the last question, according to the moderator, on food labelling.

Okay, that explains why Tony Martin keeps going to the platform — he’s not actually the NDP’s Agriculture critic. Given that, he’s actually doing surprisingly well.

12:43:54 PM
Gerry Ritz – stop me if you’ve heard this before – brags about the initiatives put in place by his government, which winds up wound-salting Wayne Easter, who reminds Ritz that actually, the Ag committee was in the midst of looking at this very issue of “Made in Canada” branding when the PM – once again choosing “messaging” over substance – brought in his own proposals, undercutting the work of the committee.

12:46:37 PM
Good little organic farmer that she is, Storey gives an obviously well-used response on the risk of genetically-engineered food — which Canadians, quite wisely, she notes, don’t trust — and once again rebukes both the Liberals and the NDP.

12:48:49 PM
As the last few minutes of debate drag on, I should probably point out that over the last fifteen or so minutes, the size of the media contingent staking out the main exit has been steadily increasing, as the clock ticks down to the moment at which Ritz will have to choose whether to brave the onslaught, or sneak out the back door. (There is a backdoor, irritatingly.)

I believe I shall join them. Time for a location change!

12:52:53 PM

Okay, the pack is in full attack mode, and has nearly completely blocked the path between Ritz and the door, but of course, he takes the back exit, at which point the entire media throng takes off through the halls, down the stairs and out into the parking lot – which is, alas, minister-free. I’ll save you the suspense — he vanished without a trace, having apparently perfected his apparation skills during his two weeks in seclusion.

But on the plus side, it was a refreshing jog. I think that’s all for now, however, so I’m going to sign off for now. Support your local farms, y’all!

(Incidentally, Wayne Easter is now holding court in the foyer, with probably triple the media attention he would otherwise command. As I wander towards the lobby, I can hear the words “Harper regime” echoing down the hall.)

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