Grandmothers grill, lobby, and applaud Chong

Grand­moth­­­­ers to Grandmothers told MP Michael Chong Monday they are up against big pharmaceutical companies – but it is doubtful that powerful lobby group can bring as much pressure and passion on a politician as they did at a packed Elora Le­gion.

Chong is chairman of the com­mittee reviewing the Can­ada’s Access to Medicine’s Re­gime, a private member’s bill. The original one was passed with unanimous support about five years ago, and was supposed to allow shipments of generic drugs to Africa. The Grand­mothers want a new Bill 393 passed with next to no changes so drugs can start flowing to desperately ill people. They say it will cost Cana­dians nothing – and the old bill saw one drug shipment be­fore it got bogged down in red tape.

They cited a poll last Nov­em­ber stating Cana­dians are 80% in favour of the bill. The group included grand­mothers from Guelph, Kitch­ener-Water­loo, Arthur, and Wellington-Hal­ton Hills.

Organizer Sharon Ogden  asked Chong, “What is more basic than the right not to die from lack of treatment?”

The group supports the Stephen Lewis Foundation that is working to provide relief for women in Af­ri­ca, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, where thou­sands of people die annually of AIDs and other diseases. Grandmothers are raising  grand­­children because their parents are dead.

Chong’s committee will start hearings Sept. 20, and he explained the pro­cess it will use. He got a round of ap­plause when he said, “You’ve got my com­mitment that Grand­moth­ers to Grand­moth­ers will be in­vited to appear.”

Ogden asked what influence the committee will have in a vote in parliament, and Chong said, “A lot.” He ex­plained the committee vote is a pre­view of what is likely to happen. There will be hearings, and the committee will go through the bill clause by clause. If people on the committee are pleased with what is there, they will more than likely support it in parliament.

Chong said the Conserva­tive government does not have an official position yet, and when the committee recom­men­dation is set, it can support it as a party, not support it, or allow a free vote.

He said with the G8 and G20 summits in Can­ada this year, the Con­servatives could have chosen to focus on economic matters, but, instead, chose maternal health issues, and he hopes the prime minister can tie CAMR to those talks. He got a round of applause for that statement.

He will talk to his committee members about the issue.

Grandmothers asked him what is the best ap­proach to take to getting the bill passed. He said there are two. The first is to lobby strongly for the cause. The second is to talk to pharmaceutical compan­ies that oppose the bill, and convince them the that the industry will not lose tens of thousands of jobs.

He said the alternative is to simply fight the other lobby group, but that guarantees producing a loser on the vote. Finding ways to alleviate the fears of pharmaceutical com­pan­ies means everyone could win. He noted MPs and parties cannot accept funds from com­panies, but job loss is a big argument for any group supporting or opposing legislation.

Ogden said the committee should focus on the humani­tarian side of the issue.

Chong said, “When lobby­ists approach us, we know what their job is.”

Ogden replied, to much laugh­ter, “Yes, but you don’t need to fall for it.”

Chong said that lobby group is “very afraid,” of the Grand­mothers’ position.

Ogden said the pharma­ceu­tical lobby can hire expensive lawyers, but Chong quipped “Nobody likes lawyers.”

He promised, “They will have no more influence than you have.”

Chong said he will talk with committee col­leagues to de­ter­mine their concerns, and see what com­promises can be made so the bill does what it was intended to do.