Love him or hate him, Ritz carving a legacy with tenure as ag minister

Next week, Aug. 13, Gerry Ritz marks his fifth anniversary as federal agriculture minister, making him the second-longest serving minister since Eugene Whelan finished his almost-11-year run in 1984.

More incredibly, Ritz becomes the longest-serving Conservative agriculture minister since Robert Weir, who had the misfortune of serving more than 75 years ago during the Depression under a Calgary-based prime minister, R.B. Bennett, who kept many of the important files to himself.

No doubt this Calgary-based prime minister Stephen Harper keeps his eye on the files but there is no indication that he micro-manages agricultural issues.

Ritz seems firmly in charge and he is turning out to be the most transformative agriculture minister in more than a generation.

Because he has a strong agenda emphasizing a conservative view of smaller state and more market power, the Saskatchewan MP is a divisive minister and nowhere more so than on the Prairies where his successful efforts to end the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly and plans to reform the Canadian Grain Commission make him an object of protest and derision by his opponents and a hero to his supporters.

Ritz is the first minister in memory if not in history to be taken to court (unsuccessfully) over his policies.

And with the strong support of prime minister Stephen Harper and his majority Conservative government, Ritz is winning. He has, and is, changing the face and dynamics of agricultural policy in Canada.

The most obvious example is the Aug. 1 end of the six-decade-old CWB monopoly, long a goal of the party and the prime minister. It is a huge payback to their conservative rural prairie base.

In the federal-provincial and farm support arena, Ritz is poised to rewrite the recent history of government farm support programs.

He is pushing a proposal, almost certain to be approved by provincial ministers in September, that will sharply cut government farm income safety nets in favour of smaller investments in market competitiveness programs.

It will turn over to the provinces more program responsibility.

It will turn on its head a quarter century of government attempts to strengthen and enrich farm supports with Ottawa insisting on national standards for farm programs

It will reinforce the Harper government’s emphasis on market rather than government solutions to farm income problems. It will deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced government spending to a grateful finance minister over the next five years to count toward agriculture’s contribution to deficit elimination.

Helping Ritz’s ability to engineer these dramatic changes in policy and ideology is the fact that he has been blessed by strong commodity prices that for the moment mask some of the potential impacts of his market-oriented changes.

But he also has engineered some of his own luck.

He is a strong advocate of his positions and does not suffer opponents gladly (critics would say he is a bully) and the result is that provincial ministers are among the most compliant in memory while farm groups that oppose him largely have been sidelined.

They play by his rules.

Love the results or hate them, it is a remarkable five-year record.

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