Larry Johnston, Bluffs Monitor, January 23, 2008
John McKay’s bill that focuses Canada’s foreign aid budget on attacking poverty in the Third World is in the final stages of approval in the Senate.
The Scarborough Guildwood Member of Parliament’s private member’s bill to eliminate poverty passed the crucial second reading in the House of Commons 159 to 108. Bill C-293 was broadened in committee to include the promotion of democracy and sustainable development. It also requires aid to be “consistent” with Canadian policy on human rights. At third reading, the bill passed almost unanimously.
It then went to the Senate. Despite being sponsored by Senator Romeo Dallaire, the retired general, in the upper house the bill was stalled because no government (Conservative) member rose to respond to it for months. After a barrage of letters and e-mails from across the country to all members, Senator Hugh Segal finally spoke on it last November 27. His concerns were largely about the bill‘s requirement that the Canadian International Development Agency, or any other department spending money on foreign aid first consult with private agencies in the field before launching programs.
There is also a requirement for the Minister of Finance to report to a parliamentary committee about positions that Canada has been taking before the World Bank that Segal thought would breach its confidentiality rules.
He was also concerned about the timing of reports back to Parliament. The present two-year limit would be reduced to one with preliminary reports in six months. The bill’s supporters contend this is not more reporting, just faster. But Robert Fowler, a career civil servant testifying in committee, called it all “layering further message massaging on the already bureaucratically constipated CIDA bureaucracy.”
One of the bill’s major targets is foreign aid tie-ins where the poor country is required to buy materials or expertise from the aid giving country. With a $4 billion budget, CIDA has a lot of co-operative projects under its wing that involve Canadian experts, from journalists to judges to engineers. The fear within CIDA is that in an open bidding process, Canadian money will just go to larger American, British or international companies or NGOs (non-government organizations).
Nevertheless, the bill has moved on to committee. Time is of the essence, because the whole bill will fail if an election is called.
McKay quips that if it was called the Segal bill, it would pass like a flash. He says that Segal and his boss, the prime minister, have been stalling it while seeming to favour it in principle. On the other hand, Gerry Barr, head of Make Poverty History, congratulates the Bill C-293’s supporters on pushing it this far.
If it passes, it will be the second time for McKay. This is a rare feat for an MP. But McKay says this effort that started fully two years ago has been much more drawn out and difficult than the first time, when his bill on fire-free cigarettes became law. Even during the short term of the previous Liberal government, the three opposition leaders that at that time included Stephen Harper had written Prime Minister Martin a letter recommending changes in reporting on foreign aid.
While a debate over foreign aid continues, the government has all but paralysed CIDA initiatives. All new items worth more than $100,000 must be approved personally by the responsible cabinet minister. All parties have stated positions that would bring foreign policy under the control of, or at least greater scrutiny by parliamentarians.
They also favour increasing foreign aid. This is the main goal of Make Poverty History, the citizen’s committee headed by Barr. The committee also wants “real” foreign aid numbers that, for example, do not throw in money for refugees as is the current practice. No change is planned that would hamper disaster relief.