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AIDS drug bill clears major hurdle

House gives unanimous approval for transfer

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar will take over sponsorship of a private member's bill that promises easier access to AIDS medication in poor countries. Credit: Peter Fritz

A bill that would enable generic drug companies to manufacture cheap AIDS drugs for developing countries cleared a major procedural hurdle in the House of Commons Feb 2 when unanimous consent was gained for the sponsorship to be transferred to NDP MP Paul Dewar.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who resigned last year to run to be mayor of Winnipeg, originally sponsored Bill C-393. The NDP’s industry critic, Brian Masse, had intended to take over sponsorship of the bill until complaints surfaced that he had already had a recent private member’s bill. Dewar was brought forward as a compromise, which was ultimately accepted.

“There was a lot of work that went behind the scenes,” Masse says. “Libby Davies worked extremely well to try to gain compromise and to open the doors, and she felt that was brought forth and there was agreement on that.”

Davies is modest, saying she was “just doing my job.”

“I don’t really want to say much other than to say I’m persistent, and I just keep trying, and we eventually got agreement,” Davies says. “That bill is very important and it has amazing support, and we want to see it go to a vote. We want to see it get through, of course, but it would have been terrible if it just laid there because Judy wasn’t here anymore. I know she’s really glad that it’s going forward. Sometimes things work.”

Compromises were made. For Masse, it was the disappointment that his name would no longer be attached to an issue he’s been working on since CAMR was first enacted by the Chrétien government in 2004.

“I’ve been around here long enough to know that it’s your actions that are more important than getting the credit or cutting a ribbon somewhere, or whatever else,” Masse says. “The issue here is far more important than anything else, and I’ve remained optimistic that we can try to improve the bill and find some ground to do so, and also participate with that.”

For Dewar, who takes up the sponsorship of the bill, the cost was the killing of his bill, which would make the parliamentary budget officer an independent officer of Parliament.

“I told [PBO] Kevin Page I’m sorry, I’ll certainly follow up to make sure that his office has more independence, but I’m sorry – this is more urgent and a little bit more important, and he understood that,” Dewar says.

While Dewar has some catching up to do, he says that the next few weeks before the bill comes back for its final hour of debate should be spent with people engaging with MPs to get support to pass the bill.

“It’s about holding people to account if they’re not going to vote in favour of it now – to say why is it?” Dewar says. “What is the problem there?”

Given that many did not expect the bill to pass this hurdle, which required unanimous consent, Masse says he is pleasantly surprised. Liberal House Leader David McGuinty, however, is not optimistic about the bill’s future.

“I can tell you that the Conservative government has every single intention of killing this bill in the Senate,” McGuinty says. “In fact, we know they will. It’s disingenuous on the part of the Conservatives to do that, but they’ve been doing that with any piece of legislation now that they don’t like, so expect more of it.”

Dewar, in the meantime, sees some serendipity in his taking over the bill, given his work with helping Stephen Lewis get the Humanity Fund off the ground in Ottawa in 2002.

“It’s an interesting path with me – in 2002, I had no idea I’d be running for office, and in 2010, I had no idea I’d be behind a bill that might actually make a big difference, and hopefully in 2011 we’ll see it done.”