The federal government's inability to take the bull by the horns in blanket testing cattle for BSE in Canada shows the serious disconnect between public policy priorities and government spending.
The Ontario and federal governments are spending millions of dollars annually on rabies research, testing and control although rabies is the lowest public health risk in North America.
A major partner in the rabies program, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) claims that "science" does not support the testing of all cattle for BSE. So, just where is the "science" that supports the need for this same agency to test thousands of wild animals for rabies in Ontario where almost all, or 99.8 per cent, of the animals tested have proven to be healthy?
Why is it that CIFA supports the need for testing thousands of raccoons, which have had no contact with humans, but will not test all cattle for BSE where there is 100 per cent human exposure? In terms of economic costs, blanket testing cattle for BSE is imperative given the number of markets that will otherwise remain closed to Canadian beef.
Previously, CIFA only tested wildlife for rabies if there had been human contact. Inexplicably, this policy changed during the 1990s, at a time when there was the least degree of risk given the significant decline in cases of rabies. That this agency became an "independent cost-recovery" operation around this time certainly raises the level of cynicism. Adding to this is the fact that the CFIA states its cost of testing raccoons for rabies is $200-$300 per animal while it costs only $30 per animal to test cattle for BSE.
A rabies industry' of government scientists, academics and private vaccine and bait manufacturers has grown dependent on millions of dollars of public funds each year. Much of the funding is allocated for research and comes from federal granting agencies like the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
The Auditor General's recent report identifies the concerns associated with government foundations handing out billions of dollars without the oversight of parliament or the public. Information on how these agencies are spending our tax dollars is anything but forthcoming.
Efforts through Freedom of Information to learn more about the rabies program have proven futile. Prohibitive fees, delays and unjustified exemptions confirms that the rabies program, with partners such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, is a particularly secretive, cozy and unaccountable one that is in desperate need of review.
The problems are significant: senior bureaucrats who hide behind privacy legislation and the lack of whistle blowing protection; government agencies that are too closely aligned with the industries they are supposed to be regulating; the lack of "sunset clauses" on research that has outlived its usefulness; and the lack of accountability and transparency on the part of government granting agencies and crown corporations in dispensing millions of tax dollars in annual grants and contracts. Unfortunately, these have become the common elements in how we do business in Canada.
Politicians need to rein in the bureaucrats and get back into the driver's seat in determining public policy priorities.
Donna DuBreuil is President of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre
and a founding member of the Ontario Wildlife Coalition