Beaverlodge hospital: Not a good issue for New Democrats?

The Alberta New Democrats are making a big deal out of the failure of the provincial government to build a new hospital in Beaverlodge, a community of 2,000 souls 43 kilometres west of Grande Prairie.

We’re not talking here about closing the 18-bed Beaverlodge hospital, mind you. We’re merely discussing the provincial Conservatives’ failure to build a bigger one – a 25-bed facility that may or may not have been promised by the governing party during the last election campaign.

This failure, according to the Grande Prairie Herald-Tribune, caused “a mixture of worry and frustration” in a town-hall meeting hosted by New Democrat Leader Brian Mason in the community’s Anglican church – named for St. Luke, who as it happens is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

Not surprisingly, the weight of local sentiment is in favour of a new hospital being built as soon as possible. Equally unsurprisingly, Mr. Mason’s New Democrats have jumped on this issue in the context of the uncertainty about the future of Alberta health insurance aroused by Health Minister Ron Liepert’s ridiculous creation of Alberta Health Services to run health care in the province, an effort that can be compared to the proverbial reshuffling of deck chairs aboard the Titanic.

From the Beaverlodge perspective, of course, a new hospital makes sense not just in terms of new jobs and money for local suppliers, but because over the long term it makes the closing of the town’s hospital less likely. So no one is going to blame the Beaverlodgers, or whatever they call themselves, for speaking up in defence of their own interests.

But is this the right issue for the NDP? I think not, for two reasons:

First, because not building a new hospital in Beaverlodge probably makes sense. Indeed, an argument could be made that the old hospital should be closed, replaced by an emergency clinic, with medical services operating out of the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, a full-service facility only 43 kilometres away in Grande Prairie. Many of us in Alberta’s big cities think nothing of driving that far to work, to the airport, or for medical treatment.

Second, because sticking up for rural taxpayers – who can be depended upon to vote Conservative no matter what – is simply the wrong strategy for what is now and likely ever shall be a political party whose success depends on urban votes.

Rural voters in Alberta have a party that aggressively and effectively represents their interests regardless of circumstances or justification, and that is the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Moreover, with Premier Stelmach’s Putney-Swope-like ascent to the leadership of the Alberta PCs, the rural branch of that party is decisively in the tractor seat.

One could argue, indeed, that in the province’s unexpectedly straightened circumstances the decision not to proceed with the new Beaverlodge hospital both makes good economic sense and took some courage by the Conservatives.

Of course, it’s always acceptable to whack a governing party for a broken campaign promise. Moreover, the NDP’s effort to turn Beaverlodge into a cause celebre makes sense in the context of the current Alberta political paradigm, in which both Liberals and New Democrats pretend to be governments in waiting capable of electing a full slate of candidates and forming a government. In the case of the NDP, alas – and I say this as a supporter of most of the party’s policies – this is a fantasy.

The Liberals aren’t much better. I remember a few years ago sighing with despair as Nancy MacBeth opened her doomed election campaign with a news conference that emphasized the need to, among other half-baked ideas, shovel more cash into pampered rustic locales.

This kind of thing has the perverse effect of reinforcing the notion among urban voters that no Alberta political party gives a hang about urban issues or the right proper screwing the government gives to urban taxpayers in this province. No doubt this accounts in part for the lamentable voter turnout in Alberta’s cities. Our mayors speak up in a whisper, but many of them are constrained by a justified fear of our one-party state and not a few by bigger political ambitions within the existing political structure.

I am not suggesting that the NDP should launch an all-out attack on rural interests. But I am suggesting that it would make more sense for them to identify with and aggressively represent the interests of urban voters, who are the only people in this province who show any proclivity to vote NDP anyway. And they should do so even when those urban interests are in conflict with rural residents’ perceptions of what they need.

God knows, there are plenty of examples where the NDP could do this. Among them: the disgraceful condition of our cities’ streets, the lack of funds for basic infrastructure maintenance, the theft of urban education taxes to build barely-used Cadillac facilities in the sticks, the horrific lack of affordable housing in urban areas, the public safety issues associated with the plague of homelessness in our inner cities, the neglect of our pathetic public transportation systems while rural highways are heavily subsidized, the miserly support given to city public libraries, the lack of so much as a basic public emergency clinic in many large suburban communities, and, for that matter, the money spent maintaining redundant full-service hospitals in tiny villages while major urban hospitals sit abandoned or are turned into condos.

These are all issues that an urban-based social democratic party like the NDP could, and should, get its teeth into. If that involves a little gentle urban-rural polarization, well, so be it! Many urban voters would say it’s about time.

Persisting with the hallucination that the Alberta NDP is a full-spectrum political party with a realistic chance of forming the provincial government is a cul de sac that will further marginalize the party. As it is, the caucus can now meet in a telephone booth without too much discomfort. It might get even smaller, or disappear entirely, if any more voters conclude that since there’s no difference between the opposition parties anyway, they might as well vote for the larger one. Either that or support the single-issue Greens, who will likely never elect anyone but at least have carved out a niche for protest voters.

Spending time and resources in Beaverlodge diverts the NDP from the task at hand with no prospect of success. Making the NDP the de facto “Urban Party of Alberta” would increase its appeal to its potential core constituency and hasten the day it could aspire to actually playing a meaningful role as Opposition.

2 Comments on "Beaverlodge hospital: Not a good issue for New Democrats?"

  1. Andony Melathopoulos says:

    Maybe so Dave, but there are a lot of disgruntled Tories in rural areas. The Conservative bedrock value of reducing bureaucracy through deregulation is becoming threadbare; the superboard is an example of how the Conservative’s attempt to deregulate only leads to the opposite; a top-heavy policy-making body.

    The problem with social democrats *in general* is that we done a terrible job of articulating a politics that could lead to meaningful decentralisation. This has not always been the case on the Left; a century ago we expressed utopia as the withering away of the state.

    The CCF was a rural party. We were once the cutting edge of prairie populism. The problem is we have not thought seriously about how to counter the tax-break populism of the Right from the Left. An issue like the Beaverlodge hospital may allow us to resolve this long standing blockage; we should be thinking about this problem rather than dismissing it.

  2. Andony Melathopoulos says:

    Perhaps the strategy is to think seriously about how to organise around this discontent and deliver meaningful and intelligent policy; something the Tories are not doing.


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