Archive for April, 2008

Health Minister to Alberta: ‘I’m not going to get into specifics…’

Was Health and Wellness Minister and reputed cabinet tough guy Ron Liepert trying to make us feel better or worse with his April 16 news conference on his “action plan” for Alberta’s health care system?

Beats the heck outta me. I was there and I couldn’t tell. Neither could anyone else in the room, as far as I could see. Indeed, the big question in my mind, as I sat at the back, was: “Why would you call a news conference if you didn’t have any news to confer about?”

This fuelled a lot of speculation. Some folks reckoned he was trying to calm us down before delivering the deathblow to health care. Others speculated he was trying to get us excited before announcing nothing much at all. I sorta thought maybe he just likes the sound of his own mellifluous broadcaster’s voice?

There certainly wasn’t any news. Here are some quotes I jotted down from Mr. Liepert’s responses to various media questions:

- “I’m not going to answer your question…”
- “I don’t answer ifs, ands or buts…”
- “You’ll have to wait ‘til we roll it out….”

Or, in response to particularly determined questioner:

- “What part of what I just said don’t you understand?”

Now, anyone who’s worked in media knows that “it’s all in the press release” is a time-honoured way to dodge difficult questions. And while Mr. Liepert never quite used those words, that was the general thrust of his remarks. Trouble was, there was nothing much in the press release either.

The day before the non-news conference, everybody knew Mr. Liepert was going to talk about restructuring Alberta’s nine health regions. The day after, we all knew… uh … that Mr. Liepert is going to talk about restructuring Alberta’s nine health regions. The month after next…

In response to an excellent question by CBC reporter Kim Tyrnacity about how many health regions would still be standing when the dust settles, Mr. Liepert said we’ll have to wait until June 15.

Which leaves us where, exactly?

Well, we know that “by June 15” the minister will announce a new governance model for health regions. What he’s going to say is anybody’s guess. So here’s my prediction: Three regions – Calgary, Edmonton and Everything Else (which will also be based in Edmonton).

How confident of that am I? Not very. But it’ll be something in the ballpark.

In addition (I predict) Mr. Liepert will roll the Alberta Mental Health Board, the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and the Alberta Cancer Board into the three remaining regions.

He dropped a hint about home care – more Boomer moms taking care of their husbands’ aging parents, I guess. Oh yeah, and he seems to think we’re all going to the doctor too much. (My physician tells me that frequent patient visits actually save the health care system money because serious problems get fixed before they become expensive to treat. But never mind. Maybe your pharmacist can diagnose you.)

However, for those who hope (or fear) there will be a big U.S.-style attack on public health care, I bet it won’t happen – if only out of deference to the Alberta Tories’ friends in Ottawa. An attack on health care by their namesakes here in Alberta would make it possible for even the hapless Liberals under stumblebum leader Stephan Dion to sweep them out of office.

So Mr. Liepert may sail close to the wind, but in the end he won’t violate the Canada Health Act.

As for Ralph Klein’s experiment with health board democracy, well, I also predict that whatever Mr. Liepert comes up with will be the last nail in its coffin. (Democracy, that’s so 20th Century!)

There will be a lot of screaming in rural Alberta about the loss of local health boards, of course, but the government will rightly conclude it can safely ignore it.

After all, they do lots else for the rural parts of this province. Moreover, by now it should be pretty obvious to everyone that if Ed Stelmach dropped an atomic bomb on rural Alberta, the survivors would crawl out if the rubble and vote for Ed Stelmach. So why not, eh?

Anyway, no actual rural hospitals will be closed, no matter how uneconomical. (Here’s what Mr. Liepert had to say about that: “We need to undertake tough decisions. … I’m not going to get into specifics.”

Of course, the government will get to brag about having saved some money as a result – but not nearly as much as you might expect.

After that, everyone (except maybe the Friends of Medicare) will go back to sleep for another 15 or so years. At that point, some future Conservative premier can reorganize the three health regions into one, and the next one after that can reorganize them into, oh… say, 19.

Anyway, Mr. Liepert promises it’ll all become clear on June 15.

But don’t hold your breath. You see, this year, June 15 is a Sunday!

Oh no! Surely it’s not ‘Distinct Society’ time again?

I don’t know about you, but my blood ran cold when I brought the Globe and Mail in from the mailbox a few days ago and read the headline “Tories plan to bolster Quebec in Constitution.”

“Uh-oh!” I thought. “Where have I heard this one before?”

Meech Lake, that’s where. Charlottetown!

What is it about federal Tory governments, whichever of the Smartest Men in the World happens to be at their helm, that they just can’t let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to Quebec, Quebeckers’ votes and the elusive dream of a majority Conservative national government?

Who among us who was alive between 1987 and 1992 can forget Brian Mulroney “rolling the dice,” trying to bulldoze the Meech Lake Accord past cautious Canadians? Under the accord, Quebec would have been declared a “distinct society,” one with a veto over any Constitutional change, no less, no matter where the population and economic power shifted in the future. Provinces would also have had the right to opt out of federal programs; their powers would have increased, further dividing our already fragmented Confederation.

The majority of Canadians, English and French, didn’t like the deal, but it seemed at the time that the “elites” of all political parties were going to foist it on us regardless of our wishes. When the deal flopped in 1990 because Manitoba and Newfoundland refused to sign on, Mulroney tried again with the Charlottetown Accord, which amounted to much the same thing.

Arguably, the country’s Constitutional integrity was saved by a plucky Preston Manning and the then-populist Reform Party, which refused to join the Meech-Lake-to-Charlottetown parade. When the Charlottetown Accord was submitted to a public referendum on Oct. 26, 1992, Canadians turned thumbs down on the deal.

Alas, the fallout from the death of Meech and the rejection of Charlottetown was predictable: Pro-separation propagandists portrayed it as a rejection of Quebec by English Canadians, setting the stage for the nearly catastrophic “sovereignty-associationreferendum of 1995. On June 12 that year, national disaster was averted by less than one per cent!

It seems ironic at this juncture that Mr. Manning’s opposition to the Charlottetown Accord contributed to making the Reform Party a credible political force. That, in turn allowed Stephen Harper to emerge as leader of the party, by then re-named the Canadian Alliance, and engineer the reverse-takeover of the Progressive Conservatives that gave us the Conservative Party of Canada.

So here it is 2008, Mr. Harper is the Conservative prime minister of Canada, and what does he propose? In the words of the Globe: “The Harper government is telling Quebec that if the Conservatives win a majority in the next election, they will look to reopen the Constitution and give more meaning to their recognition of Quebeckers as a nation.”

One can only wonder, if it’s distinct society time all over again, can sovereignty-association be far behind? (Or, since the same federal government just days before foolishly recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence to please the U.S. Administration, perhaps this time we’ll have to deal with a unilateral declaration of Quebec independence!)

The philosopher George Santayana famously observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Albert Einstein expressed the same thought more piquantly: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Whatever Mr. Harper imagines, reopening the distinct-society can of worms is not likely to produce different results from last time. The conclusion is almost inescapable that, if Canada is to survive as a country, we cannot afford to elect Conservative governments in Ottawa.

If we should do something so foolish anyway, the next question is pretty obvious: Where’s Preston Manning now that we really need him?

Saint City News column: ‘Servus Place reports offer little hope for solutions’

Here is yesterday’s Saint City News column:

Reading the various reports on Servus Credit Union Place that were presented to City Council on Monday evening is a dreary and depressing experience.

Three conclusions are inescapable:

1) Little will change in the way Servus Place is run.
2) Municipal taxes will continue rising to support Servus Place.
3) No one will address the question of accountability.

None of this is happy news. Most St. Albertans wished the Citizens Task Force and the other groups studying Servus Place well. We hoped that, somehow, they could find a way to turn our controversial leisure centre into a sustainable community asset without driving taxes into orbit.

Most of us also agreed it shouldn’t have happened this way. We wanted a measure of accountability – not out of vindictiveness, but in the sincere hope the costs of future community projects won’t spiral out of control the same way.

Alas, it’s evident such hopes were little more than wishful thinking.

Many St Albertans think the facility’s problems are caused partly by fees too high for middle class families to afford, too high to attract our neighbours in Edmonton where similar facilities exist closer to home, and far too high to bring in single-use customers who might run on the track soak in the hot tub. It’s as simple as supply and demand, we reckoned, so we made the common-sense suggestion at public meetings, in emails and at City Hall that Servus Place charge lower fees and single-use fees.

It was all to no avail. The committees speak with one voice in calling for higher fees. “The argument that overall membership would increase with a la carte pricing is rarely borne out; these options simply reduce user fees in practice,” the Sierra Systems review airily states, without so much as a footnote to support this contention. They calculate future revenues as if all present users will keep on showing up. But that ain’t the way it works, folks – and a marketing strategy to “clearly communicate the rationale” for making customers pay more won’t bring new members crowding through the doors.

And so, while thanks to the reviews there will be numerous small improvements in the way Servus Place is run, the facility’s fundamental operating philosophy will not change. Nor will there be any change in the policy of making taxpayers foot the bill as deficits pile up. Indeed, the reports call for expensive renovations to the new facility to correct design errors and attract members, and the business-oriented committee members that made the recommendations seem to have experienced a deathbed conversion to socialist principles — at least insofar as they apply to Servus Place

The reports all say the “enterprise model” on which the project was sold should be abandoned in favour of the idea such facilities provide a “social benefit” and should therefore be subsidized by taxpayers. Very well, but even those of us who actually believe in publicly financed social services don’t think the cost should be borne entirely by ordinary householders of modest means.

Finally there is the matter of accountability. Many St. Albertans suspect they were had in the lead-up to the 2004 plebiscite that resulted in Servus Place being built, and again before the 2007 municipal election, when nothing was said about the severity of the facility’s financial problems.

But there is very little about accountability in these reports. For its part, the Citizens Task Force “believes that the City was working with the best available data at the time in developing membership and revenue targets.” As far as the Task Force is concerned, that’s the end of the story.

So it looks as if the Servus saga won’t end any time soon. That leaves St. Albert’s beleaguered taxpayers between a rock and a hard place. Time will tell if City Council finds itself in the same predicament.