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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers a speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 2, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers a speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 2, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)


Michael Ignatieff plays politics with AIDS Add to ...

Whoa back, Michael Ignatieff! Before you get carried away challenging Stephen Harper on foreign policy, you'd better revisit your own record. I don't even mean your odd positions on the Iraq invasion and torture from your American days. You've disappointed many of us terribly just in the last couple of weeks.

First was your collusion with the Harperites in defeating Bill C-300, a very modest attempt to bring accountability and transparency to the activities of Canadian mining companies operating around the world. Most of those operations are in poor countries, and a number of Canadian companies have been harshly criticized by the United Nations and NGOs for abusing human rights, degrading the environment and badly exploiting workers.

The bill, as it happens, was put forward by John McKay, one of your own Liberal MPs. But your party was obviously spooked by the intense, costly lobbying campaign waged by the mining companies. Thirteen of Mr. McKay's fellow Liberals - your Liberals - deliberately missed the vote, dooming it to defeat. One of the 13 of course was you, sir, explaining that you really loved the bill yet had "some problems" with it. With your 13 Liberals conveniently missing in action, the Conservatives were able to kill the bill.

I know, I know. Four NDP MPs also missed the vote or abstained. Coming so soon after six NDP MPs opposed the long-gun registry, confused New Democrats are beginning to wonder what's going on with their party. But let's talk candidly here. We both know the NDP has no chance of forming a government while you have at least an outside chance. That's why your positions and your role as leader matter so much.

Let's now come to another significant foreign-policy issue and the equally shameful role played by your party.

This week, as you know, a single Liberal MP was able to tilt the vote against Bill C-393, legislation designed to reform Canada's Access to Medicines Regime. That MP was Marc Garneau from Montréal, your official Quebec lieutenant and industry critic. Mr. Garneau's vote allowed the Conservatives on the industry committee to gut the crucial changes proposed in this bill, which had been put forward by an NDP MP.

The access-to-medicines regime was an initiative to provide inexpensive AIDS drugs to poor countries in Africa. It was introduced by the Liberals back in 2004 with much flourish and optimism. That was reflected, you'll recall, in its unusual name - the Jean Chrétien Pledge to Africa Act - and the fact it was passed unanimously by the House. This was the Canada we mythologize. But it remains a myth. The world watched and waited. And waited. And waits still.

The sad truth is that, from the get-go, the access-to-medicines was encumbered with a mass of regulations that made it all but completely dysfunctional. For these obstacles we can thank the backroom machinations of Big Pharma, the wildly profitable and influential brand-name pharmaceutical companies. As a result of their tough lobbying - and Big Pharma, like the mining boys, plays hardball all the time - only two shipments of lower-priced generic drugs have ever left this country, and no more will follow unless the regime is made more user-friendly.

Bill C-393 attempted to do that. It's been endorsed by the usual suspects that many of us have come to trust on these issues. They include dozens of Canadian civil-society organizations, many directly involved in the battle against AIDS such as UNICEF, Médecins sans frontières, Dignitas, AIDS-Free World, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Plus many international experts. Plus tens of thousands of real, live, passionate, knowledgeable Canadians, many of them active in the country-wide Grandmothers Campaign in support of African grandmothers who are bearing the staggering burden of the AIDS pandemic. Plus (this time) a united NDP.

But minus Stephen Harper and his government, who hate C-393. The Prime Minister has always been deeply uncomfortable with the entire AIDS issue and seems tragically incapable of changing.

Minus Big Pharma, which remains vehemently opposed to a viable access-to-medicines regime, as they showed at the Committee hearings and in their eternal behind-the-scenes lobbying.

And minus your Numero Uno man in Quebec, Marc Garneau. His arguments are nothing more than the usual specious propaganda of the giant pharmaceutical companies, which have been spun and addressed ad nauseum and rebutted ad infinitum. The AIDS crisis has receded. The price of drugs is no barrier to treatment. The bill infringes on intellectual property rights. It would diminish incentives for the Big Pharma giants to do more research and development. Cheaper drugs are useless without better infrastructure and more trained staff in poor countries. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.

Richard Elliot of the HIV/AIDS Legal Network asks the Liberals: "Why the party's critic [is]doing Big Pharma's dirty work?" Good question, Mr. Ignatieff. Might it be related to the fact that so many of the giant pharma companies are based in Quebec? Is it wrong to say your boy is in the pocket of this powerful industry? And what about you, sir? You're the boss. What exactly is your position? Did you even try to persuade Mr. Garneau to support this critical bill? No one knows. But we'll find out soon.

The gutted private member's bill now moves from committee to the House where it will be debated again, probably next month. In a show of good faith, supporters of the bill have agreed to drop some of its controversial clauses while introducing a small number of key amendments that will still make it work satisfactorily. The Conservatives will oppose. The NDP will support. The Bloc will not yet say, still reacting to strong pressure from the Quebec-based pharma companies. And you and your party?

During your travels this summer, you were often asked about this issue, often by grandmother activists. You agreed the access-to-medicines regime wasn't working - who could say anything else? - but you weren't quite sure about Bill C-393. Yet your concerns aren't at all clear. Many believe that you really do care about global health issues, including the AIDS pandemic that continues to mow down large swaths of southern and eastern Africa.

But there's also a widespread feeling that you don't want to take on Big Pharma, especially in Quebec, where you're praying to pick up a few new seats. Is that in fact your calculation? Are you really going to betray Africa for a few votes in Quebec? Does this stand allow you to boast about your foreign policy?

Politics is a hard game, Mr. Ignatieff, as you've begun to learn. There are difficult choices to be made. Those wonderful activist grannies are watching you closely. Your credibility is very much on the line.

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