A political party leadership campaign is about what standards should be set for the nation.
It’s about what message the party sends out about its relevance to the country and the world to the next generation of voters. It is about all of our dreams, our vision, our imagination of Canada, about our attachment to Canada.
Justin Trudeau, all but annointed by the news media as the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, had an obligation to turn up in the House of Commons to vote on Bill C-398, legislation proposing reform to Canada’s access to medicines regime (CAMR) enabling inexpensive generic antiretroviral drugs to be sent to Africa for the treatment of those with HIV-AIDS.
He chose not to be present.
Instead he attended a fund-raiser for his leadership campaign in Brockville, a 75-minute drive south of Ottawa. The silence from the media at his absence has been all but deafening.
The media blats about fumble-mouth comments he made two years ago about Albertans. It throws its skirts over its head in horror when he tells a Radio-Canada interviewer that “if I believed Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper . . . maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” (As would hundreds of thousands , perhaps millions, of other Canadians both inside and outside Quebec.) It practically faints when he uses a four-letter word to describe the Minister of the Environment.
But it is silent when he passes on the most moral legislation to come before Parliament since same-sex marriage.
Bill C-398, an NDP private member’s bill, was about what Canada should be.
Since the CAMR — known as the Jean Chrétien Pledge to Africa Act — was first passed by Parliament under a Liberal government in 2004, exactly 23,000 doses of antiretroviral drugs have been sent in two lots to the continent, which has an estimated 22.5 million AIDS cases.
The Canadian generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Apotex, the only company to attempt to send drugs under the regime, took four years to achieve the first shipment, another year to achieve the second shipment, and has said it won’t try to send any more because the bureaucratic barriers are too costly and time consuming to get around.
C-398 was designed to dismantle those barriers.
The Conservative majority in the House voted against it because they said the legislation wouldn’t do any good — despite evidence to the contrary from experts in the Canadian NGO community and from people like Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
The Conservatives, Mr. Lewis told The Globe andf Mail, “just don’t want to be seen to be supporting generics when they are spending so much time negotiating extended protection for pharmaceutical patents [in trade agreements]. So in the great choice in life, they have chosen patent protection over the lives of children. And that’s about as perfidious as you can get as a government.”
The NDP supported Bill C-398. The Liberals — with four absentees, Mr. Trudeau among them — voted in support. And so did seven Conservatives. The bill was defeated by seven votes.
Mr. Trudeau’s three missing colleagues, all like him from Quebec (Denis Coderre and Francis Scarpaleggia of Montreal and Lise St.-Denis of Shawinigan, elected a New Democrat but who defected), did not respond to email queries about why they were absent or whether they arranged for vote-pairing — the procedure whereby two members of opposing parties agree to abstain from voting if one of the members is unable to be present.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trudeau twice ignored the question about pairing. But she did say, “As a leadership candidate he is not able to attend the House everyday and unfortunately in this instance, the Conservatives were not going to let this bill pass.”
No one knew the outcome of the vote before it was taken.
Seven Conservatives, as pointed out above, voted in favour. According to the bill’s sponsor, other Conservatives had promised to support it but, like Mr. Trudeau, didn’t show up. The two other Liberal leadership candidates who are sitting MPs were both in the House and voted in favour — Joyce Murray (Vancouver-Quadra) and Marc Garneau (Westmount-Ville Marie). Mr. Garneau had voted against the bill in its previous iteration.
Mr. Trudeau spoke at his fund-raising event at 6:30 p.m. and stayed for two hours, according to the reporter from the Brockville Recorder and Times who covered the event. He then returned to Ottawa and attended a party for members of MPs’ staff where he sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Liberal MP Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre).
The vote on Bill C-398 was held just after 6 p.m. There was time for Mr. Trudeau to appear in the House, vote, and then go to his fund-raising event, unless something else cropped up on his agenda that neither he nor his spokeswoman has talked about. The defeat of the bill was irrelevant. There was a moral requirement for Mr. Trudeau to stand up and be counted.
This is why New Democrats should say no to any scheme to team up with the Liberals to defeat Mr. Harper’s party — because you never know when Liberals are going to behave like Conservatives.
This is why Liberals should look carefully at who they’re supporting for leader.