(Sept 24, 2008) -- 'How many more people must die before the Harper government realizes that public health and safety must always transcend the boundaries of ideology?'
Each passing week since the deadly outbreak of listeriosis at a Maple Leaf Foods Inc. plant in Toronto brings more evidence of the Harper government's ineptitude in responding to public health emergencies.
The botching of this life-and-death crisis also betrays something deeper and more chilling about the Harper government that should cause everyone to be afraid. Previous Commentaries
It reflects an ideological hostility to the very idea of using the government as a force for the common good, proving that the consequences of such inaction can indeed be deadly.
Experts say decisive and prompt action is crucial to saving lives during a public health emergency. Yet from the beginning of the listeriosis outbreak a peculiar paralysis took over within the most senior ranks of the Harper government.
The first deaths occurred in June and by mid-August the problem had been traced to the source. By Aug. 17, positive lab tests confirmed that several deaths were directly linked to contaminated meat products made at the Maple Leaf plant.
Politics before people
Yet the Harper administration failed to adequately warn the public about the magnitude of the problem until Aug. 20. Then, instead of announcing new resources and regulations to ensure public safety, we had the spectacle of a series of cabinet ministers issuing blithe quips and limp assurances that everything was under control.
This was followed by Harper himself, fretting about political fallout on the eve of an election, promising an internal 'independent' investigation, a move that amounts to no more than a political gambit to shield the government from allegations of negligence toward public health.
Finally, we learn that at the height of the crisis, during a conference call with scientists, bureaucrats and political staff, the federal agriculture minister trivialized the crisis, and insulted victims, by making insensitive jokes. Yet Gerry Ritz remains a member of the Harper cabinet.
The entire handling of this emergency demonstrates callous incompetence. Worse, it reveals a lethal contempt by Harper for the most basic role of government - ensuring public health and safety. It also reflects a hostility of government as a constructive force in our society.
Sadly, this comes as no great surprise. Harper has, after all, spent his entire career denigrating government and public services. Why would anyone be shocked now that a government run by him should fail to rise to such an occasion?
Cuts go back to 2006
Since his first days in office in 2006, Harper has steadily cut funding for food safety programs and inspectors, shifting ever greater responsibility to the food companies themselves.
According to current Treasury Board of Canada forecasts, funding for food safety programs will have declined by almost 30% from $359 million in 2006-07 to $254 million in 2010-11 under Harper's watch.
At the same time, a secret government document recently brought to light by a government employee reveals that the government has been planning to let the foxes further guard the henhouse by expanding industry self-policing of food safety.
The listeriosis crisis is reminiscent of the poison water scandal that rocked Walkerton, Ont., in 2000. That disaster was caused in large part by government cutbacks and a deliberate weakening of provincial inspection and safety procedures by the Ontario regime of Conservative Premier Mike Harris.
Harper's cabinet now includes some of the same ministers who were part of the Harris government, ministers who should have learned the obvious lessons of the Walkerton tragedy.
That they did not makes an even more chilling point: the ineptitude now apparent in Ottawa is not merely a failure to learn the lessons of Walkerton. It bespeaks an ideological contempt for anything and everything that government can do to better society.
How many more deaths?
The listeriosis outbreak is an especially deadly lesson in why effective and rigorous government oversight and action offers the best guarantee of public health and safety. But how many more people will die before the Harper government realizes that public health and safety must always transcend political ideology?