Accusations fly as the comensation package for hepatitihaunts the Liberal government
Accusations fly as the comensation package for hepatitihaunts the Liberal government
From the moment he first stood in the House of Commons in 1993 as a rookie MP and cabinet minister, Allan Rock claimed to be repulsed by the Kabuki ritual of parliamentary Question Period. “I’ve never been comfortable with heckling or name-calling or finger-pointing,” he explained last Friday after the last stormy exchanges of a long, exhausting week in the House. But as Rock sat back in the relative serenity of his Parliament Hill office, in the wildest stretch of a political career that has been anything but sedate, he knew he had dished it out as good as he got it.
After a month of being on the receiving end of an excruciating beating over the limited federal-provincial compensation package for Canadians infected with hepatitis C through tainted blood, Rock had dropped his cool, impassive mask. The turning point came when he thrust a finger into the air as he roasted Independent MP John Nunziata for striding across the Commons to try to pin a victim-support ribbon on his lapel. Later, he lashed out at provincial health ministers for the “empty, hollow, cynical exercise” of agreeing to the deal—which limits compensation to what Ottawa estimates are 22,000 people who contracted the virus between 1986 and 1990— then asking the federal government to compensate all victims without coughing up more cash themselves. Finally, he retired to his office, removed his suit coat and warned—the defiance evident in his voice—that no matter how long the hepatitis C fight drags on, “I’ll be there.”
It may be a long time. By week’s end, Rock thought he had a deal—again—with nine of the provinces, Quebec being the sole exception, to stick to the original compensation package. But the controversy has been supposedly buried before, yet still manages to return to haunt the Liberal government. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien thought he was bringing closure by whipping the Liberal caucus into voting en masse against an opposition Reform party motion earlier in the week urging compensation for all.
The government won the vote and lost the public relations battle in the uproar that followed. “The file is closed,” Rock declared, igniting a further wave of outrage from people with hepatitis C—among them 15-year-old Joey Haché of Russell, Ont, who, along with others, demonstrated on Parliament Hill. Haché contracted the disease through frequent transfusions necessitated by a rare blood disorder, and may in fact be eligible for compensation. But, he said last week, “there are other people out there who need it.”
Others accused Rock of overstating the total number of cases in an effort to exaggerate the potential cost of compensation. (page 19). Weeping victims had to be strong-armed out of the House of Commons visitors gallery; Liberal caucus members groused publicly about being forced to back their Prime Minister. And
as the public backlash grew throughout the week, provincial governments began to slip away from the Feb. 17 deal in which Ottawa pledged $800 million and the provinces $300 million for those who contracted the virus between 1986 and 1990. Last week, Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario, after originally signing on to Rock’s pact, were suddenly calling for the federal government to compensate all hepatitis C sufferers, no matter when they contracted the disease, while the Quebec national assembly unanimously passed a resolution by then-Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson calling for Ottawa to pay for aid to all as well. “This deal has to be reopened,” gloated Reform party strategist Rick Anderson after watching the party’s MPs spend yet another Question Period pounding at Rock’s open political wound. ‘This is a government on the ropes.”
The Grits made it back to their comer— but just barely. For a party that prides itself on a reputation for compassion, it was grating for them to see hard-hearted Reformers looking like the sympathetic ones. But the government position was formed out of a fear that helping all victims—
Ottawa delayed until 1990 the implementation of a new screening test that the United States began using in 1986—would open the federal government to countless legal actions by others who felt betrayed by Canada’s medical system. It was a hard position to rally around with enthusiasm, and the Liberal caucus meeting last week was a dispirited gathering. At one point, Chrétien criticized other front-bench ministers for failing to rally to Rock’s aid Cater, several Liberal MPs indicated they would continue to fight). All the pent-up anger and frustration came pouring out at the provinces, who now suddenly wanted to broaden the package with only Ottawa covering the bills. The Prime Minister, fresh off the plane from an official trip to Cuba and anxious to give
Rock some much-needed support, laced into Quebec for “passing the buck to the federal govern-
ment,” and chided Ontario Premier Mike Harris in person, during a Toronto celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel, for his province’s about-face.
Chrétien’s aggressiveness emboldened Rock, who painted his provincial counterparts as callous hypocrites. “I was the one who was in the room last summer when the minister of health for Ontario said he would not discuss compensation for any victims under any circumstances,” he told the Commons. “I was in the room when the minister of health from British Columbia said compensation for nobody.”
The tongue-lashing seemed to work. After a lengthy conference call on Friday afternoon, provincial health ministers agreed that they would, in the words of Saskatchewan Health Minister Clay Serby, “continue to support our agreement” and would not call for extending the compensation package. Quebec, although remaining a signatory to the deal, still wants to extend compensation to those infected before 1986. As for those who contracted the disease pre-1986, the provincial ministers agreed that they would have to be content with enriched benefits and improvements in the existing health-care service.
The same day his government reaffirmed that it would stick with the original package, Harris still managed to lob a grenade in Ottawa’s direction. The Ontario premier announced that he would join victims in a lawsuit against the federal government to get
compensation for all those infected. “I’m fed up with a federal government that’s shirking its responsibility,” Harris said at an auto-plant photo op near Toronto—also attended by Chrétien.
The hepatitis C war, in other words, is far from over. At the very least, last week’s events showed that peace in the federalprovincial battles that color the Canadian federation remains little more than a fond wish. A dejected Rock, who has always been portrayed as one of the Chrétien ministers prepared to work with, rather than against, the provinces, told Maclean’s that the experience has been “discouraging” (page 20). Added Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stephane Dion: “It’s necessary that the provinces treat the federal government with respect if they expect to be treated in that way.”
And respect for the Liberals on this issue is in short supply these days. One of the main reasons: the success of the Reform party, which has been busy trotting out hepatitis C sufferers in the House of Commons visitors gallery and pummelling Rock during Question Period. The upshot is an ironic role reversal. Reform, a party that has always labored against a reputation for lacking compassion, has emerged as the primary defender of hepatitis C victims, in the process managing to torment Rock, the darling of left-leaning “social liberals.” Admits a high-ranking Rock aide: “Reform has been masterful.” A case in point: the way the party continues to hammer away on the question of just how many hepatitis C sufferers would have to be compensated if the deal covered those infected before 1986. “For weeks, the health minister has been exaggerating the number of hep C victims who were infected before 1986,” said Reform MP Reed Elley in one fiery Question Period exchange. “He does this to scare Canadians, to make them think we had to throw these sick people out of the compensation lifeboat.” In fact, in an interview late last week with Maclean’s, Dr. Sam Lee, president of the Canadian Society for the Study of the Liver, argued that the number of those needing compensation may not be as great as official Ottawa believes and suggested a plan for stipends, instead of lump sums (page 18).
Rock says the fight is all about principles, not accounting. “Ultimately, it is not an issue of numbers,” he said. “Whether there are 10 people, the issue is the same.” He insists the point is not to save money, but to stick to the guiding tenet that
the government should compensate people for a breakdown in a publicly regulated blood system—not simply in response to sympathy for the victims of a health crisis. His point, repeated doggedly throughout the debate, is that to compensate everyone would open the floodgates of demands for cash payments every time injury or disease unexpectedly strikes a portion of the population.
If Rock can weather this storm, he might seem due for a break in the clouds. But blue skies appear to be nowhere in sight. Later this month, he must table his department’s newest attempt at antitobacco regulations to cover everything from cigarette packaging to the thorny issue of tobacco company advertising at sports and entertainment events. And Maclean’s has learned that Rock has also begun discussions with provincial health ministers about launching a legal action to claim damages from the big tobacco companies, a measure similar to the $500-billion case that the Clinton administration is trying to bring against tobacco compa-
nies in the United States. That could pit him against MPs from Montreal, where the tobacco companies enjoy strong support. Rock also faces opposition from several provinces for his plan for a national home-care system. ‘The next 18 months,” concludes a senior aide, “are critical to his future.”
Rock’s future was the subject of heated discussion in official Ottawa, remote as it seemed to those fighting for compensation for years of botched handling of blood policies. Controversy has been Rock’s burden and blessing from the moment he was catapulted into cabinet as justice minister and attorney general in 1993. During his tenure, he was tarnished by the justice department’s investigation into allegations of financial misconduct in the 1988 Air Canada purchase of Airbus jets. That resulted in a $50-million lawsuit by Brian Mulroney and a settlement early last year in which the government agreed to pay $1 million to cover the former prime minister’s legal costs. And some Liberals still have not forgotten how Rock’s guncontrol bill cost their party rural seats in last year’s federal election.
Rock’s advisers were relieved to see him head for the health portfolio and a clean slate for the start of the Chrétien government’s second term. Health, after all, seemed about to become the government’s central focus in the post-deficit era. What better position for Rock to portray himself as the only viable candidate from the Liberal left capable of challenging Finance Minister Paul Martin, the right-of-centre heir apparent, to become leader when Chrétien goes?
Now, though, insiders are wondering how severely Rock has been hurt by the hepatitis C controversy. The argument that he has fumbled the file cannot be dismissed. Some of the criticism that the government was abandoning thousands of Canadians might have been blunted if he had negotiated to give the pre1986 group free drugs, early access to disability in-
surance or other measures short of cash payments. The Liberal back-rooms are full of second-guessers, who maintain that Rock should have pinned the blame for the limited deal on the provinces from the outset. After all, the provinces agreed to throw just $300 million into the package, compared with the federal government’s $800 million. And when provincial governments broke ranks last week, federal Liberals were even more inclined to wonder if Rock should have claimed the high ground for Ottawa earlier—and louder. But few are ready to write Rock’s political obituary just yet. “If the leadership race were being held tomorrow, this would hurt him,” stresses one high-ranking Liberal strategist with ties to Martin. “A couple of years from now—well, the jury is very much out.” So far, party strategists say there have been few calls and letters to ordinary MPs on the issue—unlike, for example, the phone and fax campaign over the gun-control legislation
that worried the Liberal caucus and plagued Rock. Some Liberals even think Rock can emerge stronger than ever from the latest controversy. Many acknowledge that any deal short of compensation for all hepatitis C sufferers was going to be roundly criticized anyway. But Rock’s single-handed defence of the deal during Question Period has converted some of the doubters who felt he lacked the toughness necessary to lead. And his currency remains strong as ever among social liberals who say he would have offered more to hepatitis C sufferers had the Liberal cabinet not balked at upping the federal ante. “What most people who are supportive of Allan are saying now is that he just has to weather this storm and he’ll be all right,” notes one party strategist.
Maybe better than all right. By the end of last week, Chrétien, after keeping mostly silent on the issue, was rising in the House to defend Rock, all but confirming that the Prime Minister appreciated his minister’s good soldier routine. Will that translate into funding for a major home-care initiative? Too early to say, perhaps. For now, Rock and his fellow Liberals only want to get past the hepatitis C issue. And after last week’s raucous events, that day still looked far away.
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