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Lobbying for hope on Parliament Hill

By David Wilson

When United Church officials sat down last fall to plan an unprecedented blitz on Parliament Hill to support the church's Beads of Hope campaign against HIV/AIDS, they knew their window of opportunity was slim. Schedule it too early and the team would be lobbying the lame-duck government of former prime minister Jean Chretien or the just-hatched government of Paul Martin. Too late and MPs might be fighting an election.

Add to the mix a parliamentary recess, a looming federal budget, the distractions of a major political scandal and scheduling wrinkles on the homefront, and the options narrowed down to 48 hours in early March. Given the green light, staff went to work mounting the biggest face-to-face lobbying effort The United Church of Canada has ever undertaken. They booked meetings with two dozen MPs and senior bureaucrats, arm-twisted their way onto the agenda of a key parliamentary committee, arranged for members of all four political parties to table a petition in the House of Commons, alerted the media, designed an outdoor commemoration service and scheduled a public forum at an Ottawa church.

Then Kofi Annan threw a curve.

On short notice, the secretary-general of the United Nations announced a state visit to Ottawa. His visit would overlap - and likely overshadow - the United Church's efforts to persuade the federal government to make the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic a national priority.

Planning was too far along to turn back. So the team of 12 -- including the moderator, the general secretary of the General Council, mission staff and overseas partners -- pressed on to the nation's capital.

The professional lobbyists who haunt Parliament Hill measure their success in terms of concrete results -- a bill amended, influence exercised. The United Church was also looking for action -- strengthening new legislation to aid the flow of cheaper medications to developing countries, and doubling the money Ottawa spends to fight HIV/AIDS at home, to name two goals. But because of who they are, the church team-members were also open to signs that their efforts were endorsed by powers greater than elected politicians.

Rather than a damper, the visit of Kofi Annan proved to be "providential," said Moderator Rt. Rev. Peter Short -- the catalyst for what General Council general secretary Rev. Jim Sinclair described as "an amazing convergence" of concern for an ailing world. Fighting HIV/AIDS is a personal priority for Annan, and on the eve of the secretary-general's address to the House of Commons, Sinclair was able to tell a packed public forum at Ottawa's MacKay United,"Everybody in town is talking about HIV/AIDS."

"Who could have predicted that Kofi Annan would be there at the same time as us?" staffperson and team member Jim Marshall later mused. "One could say it was good luck -- or one could say it was the work of the Spirit."

It is late in a long day of meetings when the moderator and three colleagues sit down with veteran Winnipeg MP Bill Blaikie in his comfortable West Block office.

Short and Blaikie were theology classmates at Emmanuel College in Toronto 30 years ago, played together on the Emmanuel hockey team ("Not a pretty sight," Short confesses) and remain friends to this day. The meeting begins with the fidgety awkwardness you might expect when old friends sit down to do official business.

Short delivers a preamble he has used in meetings all day, describing how the fund-raising part of the United Church's two-year Beads of Hope campaign has been "a wonderful shocker" -- after 12 months it is already $500,000 over its $1-million goal. "We say to ourselves, `We've touched something here'," says Short. "It's like nothing we've seen in 25 years."

That, and the fact that advocacy has been mated with fund-raising since the campaign kicked off on World AIDS Day 2002, helps to explain the unprecedented scale of the Ottawa effort. The multi-facted advocacy program reflects the complexity of HIV/AIDS itself: it's not just a medical issue, it's also political, social and economic.

In congregations, much of the advocacy emphasis has been on awareness-building. Denominationally, the church trained its sights on the federal government because Ottawa "can have much more impact on the fight than we can," says staffperson and team member Jim Hodgson.

It all seemed to lead to "some sort of splash on Parliament Hill," says Hodgson. Mindful of the 50,000 members who put their names to the church's Jubilee initiative in 2000, planners decided the vehicle for the splash would be a "Signatures of Hope" petition. The first copies were distributed at last August's General Council meeting in Wolfville, N.S. Congregations began receiving copies last fall, and by the time the petition was tabled in the House of Commons in March, it contained 30,000 signatures.

The petition asks the government to: * cancel debts that undermine the capacity of developing countries to fight HIV/AIDS; * increase foreign aid and support for the United Nations' Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; * ensure that new patent laws do not block access to life-saving medicines; * double the funding for Canada's own fight against HIV/AIDS.

For its assault on Parliament Hill the church delegation divided into two teams, one led by Short, the other by Sinclair. The meeting schedule reflected not only the wide net cast by the petition but also the organizers' determination to cover as many bases as possible and avoid any whiff of partisanship.

Sometimes at a canter and often at a full gallop, the teams crisscrossed Parliament Hill for sessions on subjects as diverse as international trade and Aboriginal affairs, with politicians as diverse as Conservative front-bencher Monte Solberg and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. In all, they met with 20 MPs and advisers to three cabinet ministers.

Some MPs -- among them Liberals David Kilgour and John Harvard, Conservative James Rajotte and Brian Masse of the NDP -- proved more receptive than others. The late-afternoon meeting in Bill Blaikie's office couldn't have taken place on friendlier territory. Still, it was not without substance. Currently one of the two longest-serving members in the House of Commons, Blaikie knows a thing or two about government and is admired on all sides as a fierce debater and a moral force to be reckoned with.

He's pastor enough to appreciate Short's enthusiasm when the moderator observes, "You can see the parties converging at a level of caring above the usual partisan divisions." And he's politician enough to realize that a polite hearing in an MP's office does not always translate into action on the floor of the Commons. He listens carefully as Jim Hodgson describes how the church and other groups have been pushing for changes to new drug patent legislation to ensure cheaper generic medicines get to countries where they're needed. While many politicians appear to agree, says Hodgson, "It's not clear who is going to move the motions and make the changes."

Blaikie replies: "If the government doesn't move them, we will."

Had you asked Anivaldo Padilha in January what he expected to be doing in early March, chances are slim he would have mentioned testifying before a Canadian parliamentary committee.

Not to mention telling his story to MPs, reporters and senior government officials. Padilha works with a Brazilian ecumenical organization that supports people with HIV/AIDS, doing AIDS advocacy among Brazilian churches. He was one of two overseas partners -- the other was Emmanuel Ngongo, a youth leader in working on AIDS prevention and advocacy in Kenya -- who joined the United Church's Ottawa blitz.

Compact, quietly brilliant and blessed with a perfect command of English, Padilha held members of the parliamentary committee on industry, science and technology -- the committee holding hearings into Canada's new drug patent legislation -- rapt as he told an HIV/AIDS success story. Lower-cost medicines play a big part in it.

Flanked by massive paintings of the Fathers of Confederation and Vimy Ridge, Padilha told the committee how in 1988, Brazil was second in the world to the U.S. in diagnosed AIDS cases. Projections put the total at two million cases by 2002.

Churches and non-government organizations began talking to the Brazilian government, and the result was a four-point HIV/AIDS strategy built on free access to medicine and treatment, education and prevention, production of generic drugs, and negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to bring down the cost of patented medicines. The program began in 1990.

By 2002 there were 1.4 million fewer cases of AIDS in Brazil than had been forecasted 14 years earlier. The annual infection rate has declined an average of 6.5 percent over the last five years, and the death rate from AIDS has been reduced by more than 12 percent. Fewer people becoming infected and more people taking the drugs that stave off opportunistic infections means HIV/AIDS is not costing Brazil's health-care system as much as it would if the disease had been allowed to run rampant. And drug companies have discovered they can make more money selling big volumes of discounted drugs than they can by selling high-priced medicines to the handful who can afford them.

The moral of the story, according to Padilha: "the importance of generics in the fight against HIV/AIDS."

Canada's new drug-patent legislation is one of former prime minister Jean Chretien's so-called legacy bills. It would distinguish Canada as the first developed country to use recent World Trade Organization decisions to make it easier to export generic medicines to developing countries that cannot manufacture them themselves.

But critics, the United Church among them, believe that a "right-of-first-refusal" provision giving patent-holding pharmaceutical companies the right to scoop up contracts negotiated by generic manufacturers will discourage generics from negotiating the contracts in the first place; the church wants the provision dropped. The church also argues that limiting the new law to a list of pre-determined medicines not only excludes some anti-HIV/AIDS drugs but also puts limits on the right of developing countries to make their own health-care decisions. "If there is no list, there are no boundaries," John Dillon of the ecumenical justice coalition Kairos told the committee.

Anivaldo Padilha nodded in quiet agreement.

Only time will tell if the United Church's 48 hours on Parliament Hill leads to concrete changes in how Canada approaches the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The drug-patent legislation, for example, was well down the committee road by the time the church made its pitch. Committee members' positions tend to harden, not soften, over the long-run.

But the church's Ottawa agenda reached beyond specific pieces of legislation toward a bigger, tougher goal -- to nurture hope in places where despair is gaining the upper hand.

HIV/AIDS has infected 40 million people worldwide. In some countries, almost 40 percent of the population has the disease. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the pandemic, to turn away because it seems nothing can be done about it.

It's also a sin, says Peter Short. The moderator has made the haunting words "You knew" a mantra in his public declarations on HIV/AIDS. "You had medicines. You had wealth.... You had in your hands what was necessary to make a great difference in the world. You had it in your hands, but not in your heart."

A healthy jolt of hope can re-energize hearts that have grown numb. Helping leaders understand hope, and showing by example that hope is possible, was a big part of the reason the United Church came to Parliament Hill.

As the public forum at MacKay United got under way, the moderator asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they were involved in the Beads of Hope campaign. Not a hand remained still.

The message that followed was one you could hear ringing, if you listened closely, in the corridors of Parliament while the United Church was in town.

"Hope," said Short, "is a state of mind, of heart, that is independent of the evidence. There is no explaining hope; hope is a gift of the Spirit, a resource that is beautiful beyond any telling of it."

The United Church's blitz on Ottawa will have been worthwhile if even a part of that message lingers on.


Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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