Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to enter the debate and for once, as the member for Halifax and as the spokesperson for the New Democratic Party, to enthusiastically support and embrace an opposition motion introduced by the Canadian Alliance.
Before I turn to the substance of the motion, I just want to take a moment to congratulate those members on the government benches who, in defiance of their own government's position on the issue, have had the courage, foresight and frankly the guts to be openly critical of that position. They obviously have done their homework and recognize the hypocrisy involved. They recognize how dangerous it is for the Canadian government not to understand that if there were already reasons to support Taiwan's longstanding bid for observer status at the World Health Organization, there are even more compelling reasons today. This has been illustrated by the SARS crisis and the unacceptable manner in which Taiwan has been treated by the World Health Organization and, unfortunately, quite clearly in response to the heavy-handedness and the highly political way in which Taiwan has been dealt with by the Chinese government.
I say, not really meaning with tongue in cheek, I welcome the fact that the Canadian Alliance for once has introduced a motion which the NDP finds it can to support. As was pointed out in discussion already, this motion is practically identical to a motion already put before the foreign affairs and international trade committee where it was evident, by a vote of four to one, that the overwhelming majority of committee members did see the wisdom of the position of advocating for Taiwan observer status with the WHO.
In fact it was quite clear at that foreign affairs committee that individual members had fully apprised themselves of what the facts and figures were, what any possible gaps in understanding about this meant, what the precedents were and why this was a sensible, acceptable bid for observer status which was utterly supportable and so on. Of course that was done with very extensive homework, and I congratulate the Taiwanese representative and staff here in Ottawa in having ensured that they provided extensive background information and a basis on which we could further do our research.
I wondered for a moment or two, when I saw the Canadian Alliance champion this issue, whether this was the dawning of a new day in Parliament. I do not want to get carried away with this but there are not very many occasions on which Canadian Alliance decides to take up and support a position that the New Democratic Party has been advocating for some time. A careful reading of the resolution indicates that it is almost verbatim based on a resolution introduced by my colleague from Burnaby—Douglas, the then foreign affairs critic and now the health critic of the New Democratic Party, who put forward such a motion, I think on October 21, 2002.
I say it is almost identical. The motion put forward by the Burnaby--Douglas member was a slightly more progressive and more action oriented resolution. In addition to calling for the Canadian government to support observer status for Taiwan with the World Health Organization, it went on to propose a bit of an action plan. In other words, it not only called upon the Government of Canada and all parliamentarians to support the principal of observer status by Taiwan, it also set out how to try to move that principle forward and how to put it into practice by calling for the establishment of a UN working group.
I quote directly from the previous motion introduced by the member for Burnaby—Douglas. It states to establish:
--a UN working group to facilitate Taiwan's effective participation in the WHO, reaping benefits for both the international community and the Taiwanese through shared knowledge and equality of access to health care information.
I listened to the official government line in expressing opposition to this motion. It was very disappointing to hear how, in my view, both misguided and misinformed the government's official position was.
First, there is the contention that this just simply is not possible to accommodate within the existing WHO structure. That simply is not true. Strong evidence exists to support the Taiwanese participation in the WHO and there are past precedents for admission to the WHO that pave the way for this observer status to be accorded to Taiwan. The Holy See, the International Red Cross, the Order of Malta, the Cook Islands, Rotary International and the PLO have been pointed out, despite their lack of status as sovereign states. Therefore it is simply not true that because Taiwan is not recognized as a sovereign state, it therefore somehow cannot be accommodated as an observer with the WHO.
Second, the government knows perfectly well that in its current status, not fully recognized as a sovereign state, this government and other governments saw fit to make room for Taiwan to be a participant in the WTO. I have to wonder, and I hope this is not true but I think it raises the question in people's minds, whether with this government trade considerations in fact trump health considerations. However when it comes down to something as fundamentally important as addressing literally global health concerns, the government is so caught up in the politics of the situation it is not prepared to put health first.
Third, the claim has been made that really Taiwan now has full access to the information it needs from the WHO, full access to the services of the WHO, and so what is the problem? It is just some kind of symbolic thing being pursued here that somehow Taiwan is just trying to push the political envelope and make a step further in the direction of achieving sovereign state status. I think this is simply not true.
The pitch has been made again and again by representative Thomas Chen that it is fundamentally a health issue, not a political issue. It surely has to be recognized that if the states of the European Union can recognize the bid for observer status of Taiwan, if Japan can recognize that bid, and for heaven's sake, even the United States can recognize the bid for Taiwan to have observer status at the WHO, this is not asking Canada to do something that is trail-blazing and thumbing its nose at important structures and precedents. The opposite is the case.
The fact of the matter is, we heard the parliamentary secretary stand up here today and say that there had been no difficulties with respect to Taiwan's full access to WHO information and services as a result of not having observer status. That is simply not true. The record is extremely worrisome. When we are dealing with a major epidemic that has potential to become a pandemic, as SARS does, we know that time is of the essence and that an appropriate sense of urgency is imperative. We also know there were severe impediments placed in the way of Taiwan's concern in dealing with the SARS epidemic, being blocked by the Chinese government.
This is not only a health threat and a violation of the health rights of the Taiwanese people, this is literally a danger to the world. As has been put forward again and again, when one is talking about the increased mobility of the population of this world and the obvious mobility of disease entities, viruses, bacteria and so on, then what one is talking about is a situation that needs to engage all parts of the world and as many participants as possible in addressing these issues and ensuring that prevention and early intervention are the most important things to be recognized.
The story has been told again and again. I know there is no government member who is not aware, far from having full access to the WHO through other agencies without now being a member of the WHO, that Taiwan discovered, in the context of the SARS outbreak, that the information was not forthcoming and that extraordinary barriers were put in the way. Taiwan was deprived of direct assistance not just from China but actually from the WHO itself at a critical stage as it tried to move to deal with the threat of the SARS crisis.
I know government members will say that has been remedied, that after those early signs of blockages, delays and withholding of information steps were taken by the Chinese government and by the WHO to address this worrisome situation. That is not good enough when we know perfectly well that early intervention and all possible measures being taken are what absolutely have to be supported from day one.
I could do no better in wrapping up the statement of support of the New Democratic Party for observer status for Taiwan than to refer directly to the words of the Taiwanese representative, who so ably leads the Taipei economic and cultural office in Canada, Thomas Chen. He has been very conscientious and thorough in addressing all aspects of this issue. In making the case for Taiwan's recognition as an observer at the WTO, he reminds us that diseases have no respect for national boundaries. That should seem obvious, but it seems as though it has not been possible to persuade the Canadian government that is precisely why we cannot get sidelined or caught up in internal political debates when we are dealing with major health issues.
Representative Chen goes on to say that Taiwan registers over 10 million outbound and inbound travellers each year. Over 150,000 Taiwanese come to Canada annually and over 15,000 Taiwanese students attend Canadian schools at any time of the year. With these increasing contacts among the world's nations, to exclude Taiwan from the WHO system can cause serious health issues for the entire world, and to state the obvious, especially for Canada given the amount of interaction and interchange that we are privileged to have between Canada and Taiwan these days.
The tremendous danger that Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO poses is most obviously seen and underscored by the SARS outbreak. Because China chose to politicize the issue, the WHO in turn refused to send needed assistance until beyond the early intervention dates that were desperately important to meet, missing the opportunity to contain Taiwan's outbreak at the earliest stages possible. As well, the WHA has denied Taiwan's bid to be an observer in this year's assembly. However, Taiwan will continue to seek support for this goal.
As has already been mentioned, 161 members of this Parliament have already signed a petition calling for the Canadian government to recognize and support this and not just to say the words. As one government member had the courage to stand up and say here today, it asks the Canadian government not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk when it comes to saying we are genuinely committed to doing everything possible in the world community to address health issues and to contain diseases in the most effective and expedient way.
Those 161 parliamentarians have done their homework on this issue and understand why this is a policy whose time has come. Surely as a result of this debate today and the further arguments put forward, the Government of Canada could listen, if not to the official opposition, if not to all the members on the opposition side who have overwhelmingly supported this position, perhaps the government could at least listen to its own backbench members. They have made it very clear that the arguments are cogent and supportable and that it is irresponsible for Canada to continue to put its head in the sand and not be prepared to support a bid that has been so widely supported by many other nations around the world and by the majority of members of Parliament.