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The politics of asbestos

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Michael Ignatieff is perhaps being reminded right now that as the leader of the opposition and -- theoretically anyway -- the prime minister in waiting, everything he says is going to be used against him in the court of public opinion by the lobbyists and pundits who seek to influence said public.

As I already wrote about in the paper last week, Ignatieff has crawled right smack dab into the middle of the debate over asbestos.

Two weeks ago he was doing town hall stops on Vancouver Island when the Raging Grannies confronted him about Canada’s continued exports of asbestos to developing countries and our resistance to adding it to an international convention that would require Canada to warn countries importing our asbestos that it is toxic and potentially deadly if breathed in.

Ignatieff -- probably not expecting the question -- admitted he might be jumping off a cliff when he said if asbestos is bad for MPs (hence the reason it is being removed from the Parliament buildings) it is bad for everyone and Canada should stop exporting it.

It was the first time the Liberal party had ever suggested a ban on exports, and the anti-asbestos lobby was thrilled.

The asbestos industry, not so much. And they fired off letters and press releases extolling the reasons for continued production and exports, including claims chrysotile asbestos isn’t as bad as the other forms, is safer now that it is only used in products like cement that don’t allow the fibres to become airborne, and is more studied than the synthetic alternatives which have yet to be proven safe by science.

So Ignatieff retreated a little. He claimed all he said in B.C. was that Canada should be warning people about asbestos. That heartened some people - like Manitoba MP Pat Martin - because it suggests Ignatieff would at least support adding asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention.

Martin worked in asbestos mines when he was young and his lungs have been scarred by the fibres.

But Martin, who wants asbestos banned completely, believes Ignatieff’s retreat came due to pressure from Quebec, where the last remaining asbestos mine in Canada is still operating. And where over 400 people would lose their jobs if Canada stopped exporting asbestos. (Canada doesn’t really use the stuff anymore. We export 90 per cent of it, mainly to developing nations where health and safety precautions are, let’s say, just a tad bit on the loose side of actually caring about health and safety.)

But the issue is not over for Ignatieff.

He got a letter this week from a bunch of Canadian doctors and scientists, laying out the case against asbestos pretty hard. Similar letters were sent to Carolyn Bennett, Keith Martin and Hedy Fry -- all Liberal MPs who were physicians before they were MPs.

The doctors accuse Ignatieff of putting industry lobbyists ahead of public health. Ouch.

I usually believe when a politician is put on the spot to answer a question they weren’t expecting and didn’t get briefed on, that we often get the closest glimpse we’ll ever see to how they actually feel about something.

So it’s likely Ignatieff’s personal beliefs on asbestos are somewhat close to what he said in B.C.

But his party can’t afford to upset Quebec. Sure he’s trying to win back support in the west but the only way the Liberals are getting back into government is by wooing La Belle Province and they have a far greater chance at that than they do wooing the west.

So what does he do?

Rock. Hard place. Meet Michael.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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