It takes a special sort of politician to wreck months of progressive work with one untimely joke. Really, think about how hard it must be. The joke would have to be so bad that it threatened to cost millions of dollars in lost sales, threatened to lower already shaky confidence levels abroad and threatened to hurt an industry that has already suffered so much.
Luckily for us, our Premier can do just that.
At the recent Western Governors' Association meeting in Big Sky, Montana, Ralph Klein remarked that "any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shovelled and shut up" regarding the single case of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), commonly known as mad-cow disease, in Alberta. The remark, which apparently was meant in an ironic or sarcastic way, might be able to ensure that nobody buys our beef for a long time.
To say this in Alberta would have been a bad idea. To go over to the United States and say it is even worse. To say it while lobbying the federal government to pay more attention to the issue goes beyond irresponsible to just plain obtuse.
For the most part, Klein has handled this issue well. He has stood up for the ranchers while showingthis singular case was indeed isolated, and not to be repeated. With the remark that he made in Montana, you might as well forget all that. The science has shown that the possibility of more diseased cows is infinitesimal. However, should any cows start getting sick, you can bet that the shotguns are coming out of the closet.
Though he was quick to say that he did not advocate breaking the law, Klein's remark is important simply because it represents how many ranchers really feel. They believe that the disease is under control and they do not want to continue hurting their industry by reporting another possible case. By shooting, shovelling and shutting up, they feel they wouldn't be committing crime, just bending the rules to make up for hard times.
This is an understandable predicament many people can sympathise with. However, for the leader of the province to advocate it, jokingly or not, is a mistake.
Before making the remark, the border was opening up, albeit slowly. The United States had agreed to accept cuts of beef from cattle less than 30 months of age. They did so because the science showed the diseased animal was isolated. If we continue to follow the right steps, and prove our meat will always be safe, more borders will open to Canadian beef.
This implies trust, something now in question courtesy Klein's remark.
Nobody doubts the validity of the tests the government is using, but we must also prove that our ranchers are trustworthy to do the right thing should another diseased cow surface. This is not as obvious now that the premier has added his two cents.
Through trust and mutual cooperation, the problems facing Canada's beef industry can be resolved sooner and with more positive results. Though there are obviously other factors (like a powerful beef lobby in the US or Japan's wish to kick-start their beef industry after a mad-cow epidemic of their own) affecting this situation, let's not try to make this any worse Ralph.