The Commons health committee got off to a raucous start this morning, with Conservative chair Joy Smith threatening to suspend the session several times as the government and opposition members took shots at one another.
The meeting was supposed to have been attended by Ministers Leona Aglukkaq, Vic Toews and Tony Clement. All three refused to appear, leaving Dr. David Butler-Jones, the Chief Public Health Officer and Dr. Frank Plummer, Scientific Director General of the National Microbiology Laboratory, as the sole witnesses.
Before the meeting even got off the ground, the Liberals and Conservatives got to arguing. When Liberal health critic tried to move a motion that would have the committee report back to the House on the absence of the ministers despite being invited by a committee motion, Conservative parliamentary secretary for health, Colin Carrie, interrupted on a point of order and proceeded to read a pages-long prepared script about how he was “disturbed” by the tone of the committee, and raised the spectre of a “Federalist-sovereigntist coalition” of the opposition. Despite attempted interruptions by various opposition members, the Chair allowed Carrie to finish his speech before allowing discussion on Bennett’s motion.
That motion was blunted by an amendment proposed by the Conservatives, which stated that they understood that a week’s notice might be difficult for a minister to accommodate for an appearance, and that amendment passed with the support of the Bloc members (“Does this mean we’re now a coalition?” Luc Malo asked), while NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis abstained. The Liberals tried to further amend the motion to add that the ministers did not attempt to reschedule an appearance, but that was defeated, and the motion as amended the first time carried.
Dr. Plummer gave a brief opening statement that outlined his involvement in the formation of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI), but that he recused himself in the later process as he had previously received funds from the Gates Foundation for his research, and he had been involved with Winnipeg bidder ICID.
In questioning, Butler-Jones repeatedly stated that their anecdotal evidence, confirmed by the Gates study in 2009, stated that there was now sufficient manufacturing capacity for vaccine pilot-lots in the Western world. Plummer added that McMaster University has a not-for-profit GMP facility that would meet these needs. Butler-Jones also restated that none of the four bidders met the established criteria, so any rumours that ICID won the bid were false.
Butler-Jones also implied that the Public Health Agency’s consultations and deliberations were being bogged down by the very committee investigation into the cancellation of the CHVI facility because they were expending a lot of energy on the hearings, and dividing their attention.
At the request of NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, he did release a breakdown of the $51 million already spent of the $131 allocated for the CHVI, which was $22 million for social discovery research, $16 million for the global health research initiative, $9 million to World Health Organisation projects, and $4 million for Government of Canada oversight of the CHVI.
Butler-Jones did not elaborate when Liberal Joyce Murray asked more about the process of the facility bids, given that she had previously been a provincial minister in BC who was responsible for these kinds of projects, and the process described was opposite to her experience. Kirsty Duncan asked after the history of the L5L or Level 5 Lab project that is being discussed for Manitoba, and Butler-Jones informed her that it was in the earliest stages of discussion.
Near the end, in response to a Conservative question, Butler-Jones refuted that there was any political interference in the process, and that the Gates Foundation would walk away if that were the case. (However, the Gates Foundation also stipulated that the Canadian government had to put new money for the CHVI, and the government ended up redistributing a lot of established ground-level funding, and the Gates Foundation didn’t seem to respond).