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International embarrassment 

As the 2006 International AIDS Conference—an event expected to draw 25,000 people—begins in Toronto this week, prime minister Stephen Harper finds somewhere else to be.

On a recent visit to Halifax, former American president—now international HIV/AIDS activist—Bill Clinton appealed to the audience to ask themselves three defining questions:

1) What do you want to see happen in the coming century?

2) How can that be accomplished?

3) Who’s going to do it?

On August 13, Clinton will be in Canada again for the XVI International AIDS Conference, where he will supply his own answers.

1) To see AIDS vanquished.

2) By mobilizing financial and labour resources for prevention and treatment.

3) Me.

Prime minister Stephen Harper may well agree with Clinton on the first two questions, but in answer to the third, his failure to attend the 2006 AIDS Conference reads as a big neon sign saying “Somebody Else.”

Between August 13 and 18, an estimated 25,000 people will descend upon Toronto for the biennial international AIDS Conference, expected to be the biggest of its kind in history. Several high-wattage dignitaries are scheduled to attend, including Clinton and former Irish president Mary Robinson, crown princess Mette Marit of Norway, Stephen Lewis and the richest couple in the world, Bill and Melinda Gates. Slightly less luminous, yet otherwise noteworthy attendees will include Richard Gere, Sandra Oh, Olympia Dukakis, Alicia Keys and The Barenaked Ladies. There will be an estimated 3,000 journalists from around the world coming to Toronto to put HIV/AIDS and the conference front and centre in the global media. Also front and centre, however, will be the conspicuous absence of the elected leader of the host country.

Governor general Michaëlle Jean will declare the conference open and the federal government will be represented by two federal ministers, health minister Tony Clement and international co-operation minister Josée Verner, but the prime minister declined to attend even the opening night gala event.

An unfortunate choice, according to AIDS 2006 co-chair Mark Wainberg. “We run the risk of sending the world a message that is the opposite of what we should be sending,” he says. That “we are a country committed to the war against AIDS. Over 5,000 people a day die from AIDS. Contrast that with any conflict that you know around the world today. AIDS is the most crippling opponent that we as human beings face. If the PM isn’t there and sends a cabinet minister instead, it says we as a country do not see that at the top of the radar screen.”

These sentiments have been loudly echoed by dignitaries, columnists and bloggers alike. In a Canadian Press story, Stephen Lewis called Harper’s decision “a great mistake.” “This is THE premier international conference in the world on AIDS,” he explained. “It is an opportunity for the prime minister to give his analysis of the issue, both domestic and international, and indicate what Canada’s prepared to do.” Kevin Mason writes on New York’s that Harper’s decision “highlights the stigma associated with AIDS in North America” offering “stark proof that so many so-called civilized people still have a long way to go in setting examples of proper ethical behavior.” Blogger jdave34 is slightly more bombastic as he writes on “It’s the fucking WORLD fucking AIDS fucking CONFERENCE…. We’re not exactly talking about Burning Man here.”

International AIDS conferences began in 1985, four years after AIDS was discovered. This will be the 16th conference of its kind put on by a coalition of international non-governmental organizations, as well as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, and with 132 countries represented, the conference has come a long, long way. Top researchers and front-line workers from around the world gather to discuss and exchange scientific research, policy issues and programmes aimed at the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. It was at the 1996 AIDS conference in Vancouver that the breakthrough antiretroviral therapy was unveiled.

According to Wainberg, the message is the medium for change. “These journalists transmit stories on HIV and AIDS back to the countries. That probably does more than anything we as scientists can achieve.” The more people that attend the conference, the more the media is interested. And having world leaders attend is vital as they provide the “political dimensions that the journalists like.”

Given the global momentum towards awareness and activity around HIV/AIDS, the promise of international publicity and with no clear negatives in sight—why would Harper duck this one?

The prime minister’s office is offering little in the way of information. Spokesperson Dimitri Soudas says only that “the prime minister is simply not able to attend.” When asked where the he’ll be on August 13 instead of at the opening night ceremony, Soudas says “the prime minister works long hours. I’m not aware where he’ll be on that day.” Nor was Soudas able to say whether Harper will be taking any private meetings with Stephen Lewis, Bill Clinton or the Gateses while they’re in Canada.

With this kind of direction from the PMO, speculation is inevitable. The two most obvious theories, however—party politics and Harper’s social values—contain fatal flaws.

That he’s a Conservative is meaningless. Brian Mulroney attended the Montreal conference in 1989, and, as Soudas is quick to point out, Jean Chretien didn’t attend the Vancouver conference in 1996. As far as the inevitable suggestion that Harper’s personal distaste for homosexuality has kept him away—he failed to show up at this year’s Outgames, a gay and lesbian athletic event in Montreal—there may exist a little merit.

But these days, holding Christian family values doesn’t mean one has to stay home from an AIDS event. On May 8, 2006, members of the Canadian Council of Churches sent an open letter to the prime minister identifying AIDS 2006 as one of three opportunities for Canada to show leadership. When the prime minister’s decision was announced, Reverend Dr. James Christie of the Niagara Anglican Diocese reissued the request and urged Harper to reconsider. Further, the federal government has been an active participant in both the conference—ponying up $4.5 million for the event—and the global fight against HIV/AIDS. At the recent G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Harper committed another $250 million to fighting AIDS, tuburculosis and malaria. “Canada’s doing a better job than most countries,” says Wainberg, “which is why we look to them for leadership.”

So if it’s not the politics and it’s likely not the social issue, what gives?

All this presumption bothers Peter Spurway to no end. The director of communications for former Nova Scotia premier John Hamm (2002-2006) says one of his greatest frustrations when working in the premier’s office was having motivations that were incorrectly ascribed to political decisions. “Politicians make decisions—others who have different political views ascribe motivations to a decision that have nothing whatever to do with the event. It’s very rarely as it may seem.”

Spurway won’t comment on the prime minister’s decisions but speaks of his own experiences, helping select which events the premier would attend. He recalls receiving dozens and dozens of invitations to meetings and conferences, and says it all comes down to availability and priorities. After determining whether or not the premier was available to attend, Spurway and his staff would look at the nature of the event itself.  

“No escaping it,” says Spurway, now the vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for the Halifax International Airport Authority, “the topic of the event” was carefully considered. “If an invitation came and it matched up with one of the priorities, we would make a recommendation.” And strategy is always part of the equation. “Strategically, there are situations where advisors will advise to stay away—let minister so-and-so go. If you step out on the issue, it will escalate the level of importance to us and our administration. You can’t have 30 top priorities,” Spurway argues. “If you don’t have an agenda, one will be made for you by anyone who knocks on the door.”  

Spurway says once the priorities are established, invitations and events are viewed exclusively through that filter. “These are the ones that we see as pressing enough. The rest will be managed.”

This provides for another theory behind Harper’s controversial decision. He has committed his administration to five top priorities: accountability, lower taxes, crime, child care and health care. A stickler for control and determined to get through his list, Harper may be unwilling to allow the possibility of any perceived divergence from his true path. So while HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is taking centre stage across the world, Harper may view it as merely a subset of health care and therefore unworthy of top-level attention. His aversion to attending could be based on management principles rather than personal ones, which would suggest a shocking level of inflexibility.

But we don’t know, and how things “seem” is a critical component to any political career. It’s a fact not at all lost on the prime minister, who recently diverted his personal jet to war-torn Lebanon to rescue Canadians trapped there. Perceptions very quickly become realities, so just as easily as he can be seen as a brave and decisive leader who rolled up his sleeves and got personally involved in saving Canadians, so too could he now be perceived as a homophobe who refuses to give his personal blessing to the fight against HIV/AIDS. Messages matter. Harper’s reluctance to offer a concrete reason for his absence gives Canadians no choice but to go searching for their own answers.

Spurway says the only way to get a real sense of what’s important to an administration is to watch, over the long run, how it spends its time and money: “Same as you or I.”

The PMO does not acknowledge that Harper’s failure to welcome world leaders at the conference is a public embarrassment. Soudas says that Canadians “are clearly happy to see that there will be two federal ministers at the conference.”  

Not Stephen Lewis. “Nothing compensates for the absence of the prime minister,” he said. “It stands out like a raw wound.”


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