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Senate sabotages latest attempt to provide generic drugs to poor countries

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Stephen Harper ended Parliament in typical style. He had the trained seals he's appointed to the unelected Senate (a body he doesn't believe in) sabotage the clear will of the democratically elected House of Commons with consequences that will cost the lives of "thousands, maybe millions, of poor people" in Africa and elsewhere.

The words are those of an outraged James Orbinski, a renowned doctor and Canadian expert in international health. The issue is Bill C-393, passed by a large majority in the House to provide inexpensive Canadian-made generic drugs for people in poor countries dying of easily treatable diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The role of the Conservative majority in the Senate was to deliberately stall passage of the bill ensuring it died once the election was called. The instructions came from the Supreme Puppetmaster, Stephen Harper, speaking through one of his most reliable dummies, Industry Minister Tony Clement. The message from Mr. Clement cemented the reputation he warmly earned during the long-form census fiasco. As Dr. Orbinski noted, Mr. Clement's case to the Senate's Conservative majority for not supporting C-393 was based on "distortions, deceptions, lies and scare-mongering." Par for the course, in other words.

Let me readily acknowledge that for my entire life I've believed the Senate, a wholly undemocratic 19th century institution, should be abolished and I have never understood how anyone could accept an appointment to it. But I've always seen how appealing it is. After all, you're suddenly handed on a platter one of the great gigs this country offers -- a fancy title, instant status, a minimum $123,000 a year plus expense accounts, air travel, pension and optional attendance. Or a high-profile forum if you choose to use it, as a few admirable senators do.

But to whom are senators responsible, if anyone? How do they decide what positions to support or oppose? They're appointed by the Prime Minister personally and usually carry his party affiliation but they supposedly serve the country, or so it's claimed. Do they show their eternal gratitude to this one man, which would make them simple hacks, or have they a higher duty to the public good? This is a genuine choice, and Bill C-393 gave us the pathetic answer when a majority of senators chose to slavishly follow the party line. All were Conservatives, no fewer than 35 of them appointed by Stephen Harper in violation of every word he ever uttered about the illegitimacy of an appointed Senate. But that was before he became PM.

There's hypocrisy upon hypocrisy piling up here. Last November, for the first time in 70 years, this same Conservative-dominated Senate, without a hearing or debate, killed a climate-change bill that had been passed by a majority of elected MPs in the House of Commons. It was a bill Stephen Harper hated -- he's still mostly a global warming denier -- and it was at his command that his senators transgressed against democracy, accountability, common sense and the future of our children all at the same time. Marjory LeBreton, Mr. Harper's Senate Leader, airily dismissed the legislation as "a coalition bill," some kind of conspiracy, apparently, of Liberals, socialists and separatists.

Killing C-393 last week was a second example of the extraordinary harm a majority of Conservative senators have been ready aye ready to inflict at the behest of their master. (Some Conservatives stayed away from the chamber, apparently to avoid voting with the majority but not prepared to vote against them, and one, Nancy Ruth, honourably spoke in favor of the bill.) Have no doubt the majority knew exactly what they were doing and what the stakes were.

Canada's Access to Medicines Regime was introduced nearly seven year ago as a proud effort to help people dying of preventable diseases in poor countries. It is Canada's shame that ever since, under pressure from the giant pharmaceutical companies, a succession of Liberal and Conservative governments have sabotaged this project. In the entire period, only two shipments of drugs have been dispatched to Rwanda. Bill C-393 was the latest futile attempt to make CAMR work. Now it too has been sabotaged.

Bill C-393 would have fixed the regime by cutting the red tape that has undermined its very purpose -- enabling Canadian generic drug manufacturers to provide inexpensive drugs to poor countries, where brand-name drugs are often unaffordable. In the House, besides all members of Ms. LeBreton's bogeyman coalition, 26 Conservative MPs also supported the bill. It was endorsed enthusiastically by an overwhelming majority of medical and legal experts, humanitarian activists, faith leaders, AIDS and international development organizations across the country and health activists in developing countries.

Dozens of prominent Canadians immersed in international health issues urged passage, as did more than 70,000 other Canadians who took the time to sign a petition or to email and call their MPs and senators. The national advocacy committee of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign -- 10,000 Canadian grannies, committed to working with their African counterparts, who had made this bill their crusade -- lobbied vigorously on its behalf; some were in the Senate audience last week, heart-broken when the Conservatives assured its death. None of this mattered to the majority of Conservative senators. Ms. LeBreton, Mr. Harper's Senate Leader, airily dismissed the legislation as a "coalition bill", some kind of conspiracy, apparently, of Liberals, socialists and separatists.

A more perfect definition of Mr. Harper's contempt for Parliament, democracy, the world and evidence-based policies would be hard to find.

The Conservatives who have again sentenced so many Africans to a miserable death should hang their heads in disgrace. They make a mockery of being called "Honourable." There is no honour here. Yet I don't for a moment expect them to feel the slightest embarrassment, shame or, indeed, dishonour. Conservatives don't do remorse (except for wrongs committed by earlier governments against potential ethnic supporters). But they need to know how many of their fellow Canadians are deeply ashamed of them, and while this is one of the many vital issues that won't be part of the election campaign, they should understand how many voters will remember their role not only on voting day but long after.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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