Whether you like him or not — and there are few that sit on the fence when it comes to how they feel about the feisty Gerry Ritz — his tenure as federal Agriculture Minister is starting to become rather impressive.
While not quite yet in the category of Saskatchewan’s Jimmy Gardiner or Ontario’s Eugene Whelan, it’s likely safe to say the Battlefords-Lloydminster MP has lasted longer in the portfolio than many thought he would.
This is, after all, a Conservative government with no shortage of talent from rural Western Canada or even rural Ontario from where most of the agriculture ministers have come. Prime Minister Stephen Harper clearly had other choices in his most recent shuffle — some of which likely are more knowledgeable or have more hands-on experience in agriculture.
So perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of the recent cabinet shuffle — at least from the perspective of rural Saskatchewan — is how Ritz has managed to last as long in the portfolio as he has.
To hear Ritz tell it, it has much to do with him being a right fit for the kind of cabinet Harper wanted to build.
“It’s a great team, a good strong team,” Ritz told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix in a telephone interview. “There’s a combination of stability there from some of the old guards, such as myself, as well as fresh people coming in taking on some roles to build towards the next election in 2015.”
Indeed, Ritz was one of the few ministers to maintain his portfolio in this major cabinet shuffle in which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Treasury Board President Tony Clement were the only ministers who were not moved.
Saskatchewan’s other minister Lynne Yelich now becomes Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Consular Services, losing her Western Economic Development portfolio to Alberta’s Michelle Rempel.
But while a long tenure as a senior role in the federal cabinet will always be admired by many, a closer look at Ritz’s record suggests his political career has had its share of problems.
He will forever be the agriculture minister that presided over the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board as a single-desk seller — a grand accomplishment to many and a betrayal to others.
Less stellar, however, was his handling of tainted meat at both processing facilities (remember “death by a thousand cold cuts”?) and packing plants. One could add the end of community pastures, the closing of the Indian Head tree farm for a pittance of savings to the federal budget and the demise of support problems that frustrated the Saskatchewan Party government.
And as the senior Saskatchewan minister, his service to this province has to include the Harper government’s failure to make good on its 2006 election promise for more equitable treatment of our natural resource revenues by removing them from the equalization formula.
That said, Ritz’s long tenure in cabinet may very well boil down to having the one quality that Harper most admires and rewards _ unfailing loyalty and dedication to the Conservatives’ political agenda.
Why Gerry Ritz has been in cabinet so long was likely made evident a day after the shuffle when various news outlets began reporting stories of a leaked e-mail from the “issues-management department” in the Prime Minister’s Office. The memo advised partisan staffers to prepare in-coming ministers with advice on things like “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders” and “What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects.”
Of course, a veteran like Ritz would need no such briefing because he embodies the Conservative approach that Harper wants.
So what we think of Gerry Ritz as agriculture minister actually matters little. What’s important is that Stephen Harper wants him in that job.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.