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Tory ministers skip HIV vaccine study meeting

'They're not doing their job,' says Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett

Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett Credit: Robert Thivierge photo

The Commons health committee study on the cancellation of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) production facility became mired in partisanship Thursday, as Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett immediately moved to condemn the absence of the three ministers who had been requested to appear.

In the previous meeting on the study, the committee carried a motion that asked Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Industry Minister Tony Clement and Public Safety Minister — and senior minister for Manitoba — Vic Toews to appear in order to sort through allegations of political interference. All three ministers refused to appear.

When Bennett tried to move her motion, the Conservative parliamentary secretary for health, Colin Carrie, moved a point of order and read from a prepared text about how he found the tone the committee had taken to be “disturbing,” and that it was becoming a “witch hunt.”

“It’s really despicable that they pretend that there’s a point of order and then read a script clearly prepared by the communications officer somewhere in a department,” says Bennett. “They’re not doing their job as Parliamentarians.”

The absence of ministers when invited to a committee is something Bennett finds deeply disturbing and indicates the way in which the tone of Parliament has changed under the current government.

“This is a very serious thing,” Bennett says. “Regardless of what the topic is, there was always a collegial approach that ministers came to committee…. I think things will have to change because now this undermines our ability as Parliamentarians to hold the government to account if the government ministers can just wilfully refuse to come.”

“They’ve decided to show contempt of Parliament by not having ministers come to the committee,” says NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis. “They have yet to release any of the documents that we’ve requested; they don’t table any evidence to suggest that there were cost-benefit analyses done or that in fact there’s clear evidence that this kind of research at a clinical level will be guaranteed space in a laboratory. The list goes on and on.”

Carrie nevertheless felt the committee’s tone had taken a turn for the worse.

“In my experience, health committee traditionally has been non-partisan, and especially the last two meetings, I felt it was improper to continue the personal attacks against our witnesses,” Carrie says. “Basically attacking the integrity of Canada’s top officials, the top doctor, the top researcher, and frankly, I was offended.”

Appearing before the committee in the end were Chief Public Health Officer David Butler-Jones and Frank Plummer, Scientific Director General at the National Microbiology Laboratory.

Dr Butler-Jones reiterated that none of the four bidders for the HIV vaccine production facility met the criteria, and that “no politician of any stripe” was involved in the process. He added that the Gates Foundation would walk away from the table if there were interference.

Dr Plummer also said that McMaster University had a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) facility that could produce vaccine pilot-lots as part of the capacity available. Wasylycia-Leis was not convinced.

“McMaster’s always been there — they wouldn’t have made the request to begin with if that was the issue,” Wasylycia-Leis says. “I think it adds credence to the fact that this wasn’t a genuine reason for cancelling the project in the first place, and they’ve tried to establish a reason then, and it’s flawed and full of holes, and even the author of the study has in so many words said that.”

Liberal vice-chair Joyce Murray also found part of Butler-Jones’ testimony about the bidding process to be in stark contrast from her own experience as a former BC minister of management services.

“I was shocked to hear Dr Butler-Jones say this is a grant, you either get it or you don’t get it,” says Murray. “That was certainly not my experience — governments and all of the partners, the proponents and the researchers involved have all spent a huge amount of opportunity cost to make something happen that they believe is important.

“To suggest that it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposal just made no sense at all.”