An attempt to remove the obstacles that prevent Canadian generic drug companies from copying life-saving pharmaceuticals and shipping them to the world's poorest countries at cut-rate prices has been defeated by the Conservative government.
A private member's bill sponsored by New Democrat MP Hélène Laverdière that aimed to correct the many flaws in Canada's Access to Medicines Regime went down to a narrow defeat Wednesday evening when all but seven members of the Conservative caucus voted against it.
Bill C-398 was, in all practical ways, identical to a bill that was passed by the Commons in the final days of the previous government but did not get through the Senate before the 2011 election was called.
It was an attempt to untie the knots in CAMR, which came into law in 2004 under a Liberal government. While the goal of the access-to-medicines regime has been widely lauded, it is fraught with red tape and, in eight years, has been used to send just two batches of one generic drug to one country.
When Bill C-398's predecessor was before the Commons last year, 26 Conservatives voted for it. But the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear it did not support Ms. Laverdière's proposed legislation. And many Tories who rose in favour of it in 2011 opposed it this time around.
That sent the bill down to defeat, by a count of 141 to 148. The New Democrats, the Liberals and all other opposition MPs voted for it.
When asked to explain the Conservative opposition to the bill after it was defeated, government House Leader Peter Van Loan ducked into his office, and Tony Clement, the Treasury Board president, said he wasn't going to talk about it because it was a private member's matter.
Chris Alexander, the parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister who was previously an ambassador to Afghanistan, said the proposed legislation was not the best way to help people suffering from diseases in Africa and elsewhere.
"Canadian pharmaceutical companies have been among the most generous in the world donating $400-million of pharmaceuticals, that are a larger gift than any other nation has made, to countries like Afghanistan," Mr. Alexander said. "This would have undermined all of that."
But even Canada's brand-name drug manufacturers said they were not opposed to seeing Bill C-398 progress through Parliament.
Supporters of the proposed legislation said the government had engaged in a prolonged campaign of misinformation and intimidation of its members to ensure that the proposed legislation was defeated. Conservative MPs gave speeches in the Commons saying the bill would leave Canada in contravention of its obligations under World Trade Organization rules. But international legal experts have said that is not the case.
Members of groups that lobbied MPs to support Bill C-398 crowded into the visitors' galleries of the House of Commons on Wednesday to watch the vote. Many were near tears when it became clear their efforts were for naught.
Pat Evans of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network said her organization and other worked very hard for the bill "and we are just absolutely distressed."
Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said he was profoundly disheartened by the "deliberate spreading of misinformation about the bill and the pressure that was brought to bear on a good number of government caucus MPs."
The people who will suffer, Mr. Elliott said, "are the men, women and children who are not going to get medicines that will keep them alive that we might have otherwise been able to supply. I think that's reprehensible. I think that's disgusting. And I don't think it's what Canadians want from their Parliament and their parliamentarians."
As MPs left the Commons, Ms. Laverdière walked across the floor to shake the hands of the seven Conservatives who voted for her bill. But she was scornful of those who voted against it – especially the Conservatives who had supported the bill previously and those who indicated they would vote in favour of it this time but did not.
"It is so profoundly sad that they couldn't rise above petty politics," Ms. Laverdière said. "There are two types of people who are really losing this evening. First are the people we could have helped with the bill. And I think that the Conservatives have also shown that they were not able to rise above politics to do the right thing."