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Harper stands by Ritz despite 'tasteless' jokes

Agriculture Minister made a crack about a listeriosis-related fatality in PEI, which turns out to have been a false alarm

Globe and Mail Update

TROIS RIVIÈRES and TORONTO — Stephen Harper is refusing to seek the resignation of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz for making light of the listeriosis deaths of 17 Canadians, saying the MP's remarks were embarrassing but don't undermine his work on the matter.

While terming the remarks as an “embarrassment,” Mr. Harper said Mr. Ritz had worked particularly hard on the effort to get the crisis under control.

“Look, Minister Ritz understands clearly that these comments were completely insensitive and unacceptable and he has completely apologized,” Mr. Harper told reporters in this Quebec city today.

But Mr. Harper said Mr. Ritz worked extremely hard to rectify the problem.

“I think this story is obviously very embarrassing for him, very unfortunate, but should not detract from the good work he has done to get on top and understand this matter.”

Mr. Ritz was forced to apologize Wednesday after referring to the crisis as the “death of a thousand cold-cuts” and then jokingly expressing the hope that MP Wayne Easter, his opposition critic on the Liberal benches, was the reported fatality in Prince Edward Island – which turns out to have been a false alarm.

A spokeswoman at the province's Department of Health and Community Services said in an interview Thursday that the patient is very much alive and recovering from listeriosis in a hospital in Charlottetown.

“What a mix-up,” the spokeswoman said. “It is making a great day for us here,” she added, referring to the flurry of telephone calls coming into her office.

The PEI health department is not releasing any details about the patient, except to say that he is doing well and is being treated with antibiotics.

Mr. Harper acknowledged that he did not know of the remarks until Wednesday night, when they were first reported, even though a PMO official was in the discussions.

“I presume the reason we didn't know about it is because people who were involved in these various conference calls, and there many of them in that period, were primarily concerned with getting the problem rectified,” he said.

“The real question at that time was to make sure everybody was doing their job.”

The Conservative Leader added that, while the remarks were insensitive, they were made during a private discussion. He suggested that many Canadians might find themselves under scrutiny if a light had been shone on their personal conversation.

Both Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton have urged Mr. Harper to fire Mr. Ritz, which the Conservative Leader said Thursday he would not do.

“He's been doing a good job on this file and I applaud him for apologizing completely and forthrightly.”

Mr. Dion said Mr. Harper has no choice now but to fire the Minister.

“But now, Mr. Harper has no choice. He must fire this man because of his complete lack of sensitivity that he expressed himself by these unacceptable remarks. He must be fired right away,” Mr. Dion said.

He noted the Liberals called for Mr. Ritz's resignation two weeks ago over his handling of the tainted-meat crisis. But he said that his errors are compounded by such insensitivity to those who suffered that Canadians will not understand if he is allowed to keep his job.

When asked what Mr. Ritz's joke said about the Conservatives, Mr. Dion said he was reluctant to comment on that today because the Minister's comments were so "troubling.”

“I understand your question, but I'm reluctant to answer it because we are speaking about lives. People have passed away, and families that are very affected by that. So I will consider this case as such,” he said.

“If you ask me a question about the culture of this government I will answer it. But this case is so, so troubling for me that I will only say this thing: Mr. Harper must fire this minister right away, because he has shown a lack of sensitivity – beside his incompetence – a lack of sensitivity that is insulting everyone.”

Mr. Dion made the statements at a Toronto announcement of his infrastructure proposals where he appeared alongside Toronto-area candidates and former leadership rivals including Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, and Martha Hall Findlay.

And at a time when Mr. Harper's minister is under fire – and Mr. Dion's own leadership performance has been criticized – the Liberal Leader did not hesitate to play up his team.

“I have an extraordinary team. He has a lamentable team. I work with a team. He works alone,” he said.

Mr. Ignatieff said the Conservatives cut food inspections, and Mr. Ritz should already have been fired because they don't seem to understand that Canadians want them to ensure closer control.

“Canadians want government inspectors on the floor of these factories checking the slicers … I don't think Gerry Ritz gets that, and I don't think Stephen Harper gets that,” he said.

Listeria can cause listeriosis, a foodborne illness that causes high fever, headache, neck stiffness and nausea that is of particular concern to the elderly, pregnant women and the infirm.

So far, 17 deaths have been linked to the recall of food products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. There have been 14 deaths in Ontario, and one each in British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick.

The conversation on Aug. 30 began with talk of the mounting death toll and trends in the spread of the disease.

Sources told Canadian Press Mr. Ritz began the call by asking: “Are there any more bombs out there?” — implying any politically damaging news.

Mr. Dion was campaigning in Toronto and NDP Leader Jack Layton was in Winnipeg, while Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe was to meet with supporters in Carleton-Sur-Mer, Que., and Green Leader Elizabeth May campaigned in Nova Scotia.

So far, Mr. Harper has demonstrated an aggressive, merciless attitude toward campaign-trail gaffes and missteps, apologizing quickly and without reservation.

When the Tories introduced an online ad that depicted a puffin pooping on Mr. Dion's shoulder, Mr. Harper wasted no time in acknowledging the ad was in poor taste and issuing an apology.

The same thing happened in the wake of a war-room e-mail that tried to impugn the motives of Jim Davis, the outspoken father of Cpl. Paul Davis, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006.

Campaign tactician Ryan Sparrow, who responded to Mr. Davis's criticism of the decision to pull Canadians out of Afghanistan in 2011 by describing him as a Liberal supporter, was booted from the Tory war room and ordered to apologize.

Mr. Harper faced criticism today for a $1.9-billion funding announcement that the federal cabinet made just three days before calling the election. The government quietly announced the money for housing and homelessness Wednesday.

Mr. Harper rejected suggestions that pushing the money out just days before the campaign started undercuts his efforts to criticize other parties for buying Canadians' votes with their own money.

“No. It's a completely different,” he said, before adding that the money is not a campaign promise, but was already put aside in the 2008 budget. He said the cabinet made the decision before the election because the programs needed to be extended by the end of the year.

The opposition, on the other hand, is making promises that will require tax hikes, deficits or both.

“Yesterday, Mr. Dion announced $3-billion in spending promises, today he announced $70 – seven-zero – billion dollars in spending promises. The real question is this going to be paid by the carbon tax, is this going to be paid by … deficits or is this just something they have no intention of actually doing."

In fact, according to the Liberals, the $70-billion infrastructure plan would not include any extra spending in the first four years over what Ottawa spends now, under Mr. Harper's Conservatives. After that, in years five to 10, the Liberals would increase spending by an average of about 10 per cent per year.

The Tories have hiked spending 19 per cent since the Liberals left government, a figure that is well ahead of GDP growth.

Mr. Harper acknowledged those increases, but said the government has a plan to keep them down and they are not close to the pledges being made by the Liberals.

“I have said that our spending is a little bit ahead of where it should be, it's been a little bit ahead of GDP growth, but we have an expenditure management plan that has been moderating that,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Harper increased his pitch to win over the votes of Canadian seniors with a modest tax break that would offer Canadian seniors a modest tax break worth up to $150 .

Mr. Harper made the announcement this morning after visiting a local seniors' residence in Quebec, a keystone province in his efforts to win a majority government.

The campaign promise, which would cost the government $400-million per year, would boost the amount of income a senior can make by $1,000 before paying taxes. Seniors currently start paying taxes at $16,673 per year.

“In a time of rising prices and global economic uncertainty, Canadian seniors deserve stable, certain leadership from government, and we should do more to let seniors keep more of their hard-earned dollars,” Mr. Harper said.

With a report from Canadian Press

Week 2 of the campaign

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