It was World AIDS Day this past Saturday. At the risk of sounding defeatist, recent events in Parliament have put a bit of a damper on my celebratory spirit.
On the front to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic, there are some reasons to celebrate, and perhaps a few government actions to applaud. But last week’s decision in the House of Commons certainly wasn’t one of them.
Much to the chagrin of medical and legal experts, humanitarian activists, development organizations, faith communities, and other concerned Canadians, last Wednesday Bill C-398—legislation intended to strengthen Canada’s capacity to send low-cost drugs to developing countries—was voted down.
What a way to usher in World AIDS Day!
Held every December 1st since 1988, World AIDS Day’s current theme—Getting to Zero—outlines targets set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for universal access to prevention, treatment, care, and support. Included is a call for states to make use of the flexibilities permitted under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in order to improve the flow of cheap medicines to places most in need.
Last week, 148 parliamentarians voted that Canada is doing enough on this front, while 141 voted that we could be doing more. Since you can’t argue with the numbers, the Canada-is-doing-enough camp won, and Bill C-398 was defeated.
Tabled on February 1, 2012 by NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, this legislation—An Act to amend the Patent Act (drugs for international humanitarian purposes)—was designed to make it easier for Canadian companies to produce and export much-needed generic medicines overseas to people battling devastating but treatable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Bill C-398 did not create new policy out of thin air. Rather, it aimed to cut the red tape currently entangling Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). When CAMR was established in 2005, Canada showed impressive leadership as the only country to implement the 2003 WTO waiver on patent agreements.
While laudable in its original intent, however, CAMR has only been used once in eight years to authorize a single shipment of a single drug to a single country.
Should we rest on our proverbial laurels as long as we aren’t effectively delivering on the promise we made? In the last Parliament, MPs didn’t seem to think so.
A previous version of the access-to-medicines bill successfully passed through the House of Commons with support from all parties, but did not become law as it was unable to make it through the Senate before the 40th Parliament came to a dramatic end in 2011.
This legislation was resurrected in the 41st Parliament, this time with even the pharmaceutical industry voicing support. As second reading vote drew near, however, myths and misinformation about the bill abounded. When it came time to send the bill to Committee for further study—the perfect forum for testing any relevant critiques and getting those on the public record—it was defeated by too many “nays.”
The Government defended this vote, arguing, among other things, that fixing CAMR is not the solution to a complex problem. Besides, Canada is already doing other things to tackle HIV/AIDS, like investing in the Global Fund.
Let’s be clear. Making headway on the fight against HIV/AIDS will, of course, require a multidimensional response. Just because CAMR isn’t a panacea, however, does not mean it isn’t part of the solution. Furthermore, pointing to the other initiatives Canada may be supporting—as laudable as those initiatives may be—is not a compelling argument for leaving CAMR as-is.
If it ain’t working, why not fix it?
Whatever the answer, we must now move on. So what happens next on the access-to-medicines agenda?
Well, get out your binoculars because the minutiae of parliamentary procedure has a few things to say about “what’s next,” and, on the legislative front, this requires looking way down the road.
Private Members’ Bills (like Bill C-398) have a complicated journey to make through the legislative process. Unlike legislation put forward by Government Ministers, the introduction of Private Members’ Bills depends, quite literally, on the luck of the draw. To get an item on the Order of Precedence, Private Members rely on a lottery conducted at the beginning of each parliamentary session, which establishes the first 30 names on the list of consideration for Private Members’ Business.
Each sitting day, MPs at the top of the list have only one hour in the House to put forward their legislative and policy proposals. Once an MP like Laverdière introduces a bill, she must garner support for the proposal. In a majority government context this can be difficult, as any initiative without the governing party’s support will not move forward.
Such was the case with Bill C-398.
Since the House of Commons voted down the access-to-medicines bill, no legislation resembling this bill can be tabled again until the slate of Private Members’ Business is wiped clean, typically with the establishment of a new Parliament.
Them’s the rules.
Perhaps on World AIDS Day in a few years’ time, we can celebrate its return?
In the meantime, thankfully many individuals, organizations, and global bodies are in it for the long-haul—dedicated to working for creative and effective approaches to tackling HIV/AIDS.
By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst