With an election expected to be held at the end of June, everything Canada’s governing Liberal Party does is being filtered through a national lens of skepticism. Cabinet Ministers bristle at charges of being cynical.
Into this environment flew Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, to speak at a conference on HIV/AIDS in Ottawa, then to be on hand as Prime Minister Paul Martin announced a contribution of CDN$70 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for the fiscal year 2005-06, roughly double what has been pledged for the past four years. Earlier in the week Martin’s government had passed a bill loosening some patent restrictions on antiretroviral drugs and other life-saving medicines and pledged CDN$100 million to the World Health Organisation’s ‘3-by-5 initiative’.
Wearing a small red ribbon on his lapel Prime Minister Martin, sitting beside Bono at a press briefing, said the contribution to the ‘3 by 5’ was for “on the ground training” in Africa. Referring to his invitation for Bono to join him for the announcement Martin acknowledged that the singer had declined to be part of it until the Prime Minister had made the additional pledge to help the Global Fund. Bono added, “This (Global Fund) money is more clever than it is emotional because it’s contributing to (infrastructure) capacity on the ground, not putting pills in the mouths of AIDS patients” which, he added, might rightly have been seen simply as “sexy” political opportunism.
Responding to newspaper headlines such as “Bono rocks Liberal vote”, “Bono backs Martin’s AIDS push” and “Bono doubts AIDS money is election ploy”, the singer told reporters, “Of course I’m being used but this is something I don’t mind bending over for, if I could be so crude. That’s my job, to provide applause when somebody does the right and courageous thing and to provide criticism when they don’t.” He added that he, and not the government of Canada, was paying his expenses for the trip.
The activist singer said he also encouraged Canada’s stated goal of urging wealthy nations to increase, to 0.7 percent, the portion of national gross domestic product allocated to end poverty. “We can be the generation that eradicates this stupid poverty by (which) I mean this lack of food or medicine you can buy around the corner.”
Part of the money in this week’s announcements was previously earmarked in the last budget but some will be taken out of the existing budget of the Canadian International Development Agency. The Globe & Mail newspaper quoted an official as saying, “This has made some people nervous within CIDA. It will put pressure on other priorities.” It’s a strategy Martin has employed before. When he was Finance Minister he re-allocated funds to focus world attention on Canada’s efforts to bring about a reduction in foreign debt levels among the world’s poorest countries. That’s when he and Bono first met.
Concluding the news conference, again deflecting questions of cynicism, Martin said, “It has nothing to do with an election but everything to do with why one goes into politics.” Bono added, “I don’t care how it gets done, as long as we in the north make a greater effort to alleviate all the needless suffering in the south.”
Later, in an interview on CBC Newsworld, the UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, Canadian Stephen Lewis, said Canada’s contribution to ‘3 by 5’ virtually ensures its success. “This can be used as leverage (to more populated G-8 countries) and puts Canada ahead of everybody else in support of the WHO initiative – the single most important initiative at the moment. I don’t deny that the timing is advantageous around an election,” Lewis shrugged, adding, “but you know what? I don’t care as long as Canada is doing this, and we’re making a serious commitment, and it’s on-going.”
Canada’s Minister of Health, Pierre Pettigrew, travels to Geneva next week for a meeting of the World Health Assembly. “I don’t even know,” Mr. Lewis said, “if the government fully recognised this. These announcements came just before an assembly of every Minister of Health in the world, so when the head of the World Health Organisation opens that meeting he will open with that Canadian contribution.”
Lewis may be one of the few to wonder if the timing is coincidental.