It’s one thing for a crowd of seniors in St. Albert, which has been known to vote Liberal now and again, to heartily boo a famously cantankerous politician like Health Minister Ron Liepert when he shows up on their doorstep from faraway Calgary. This happened back in May 2009.
It’s quite another when the same kind of crowd, fired up about the same kind of issue, shows up at a public forum on health care in Edmonton’s solidly Tory Whitemud riding and boos a local Tory doyen like Dave Hancock. This happened last night, when more than 500 people packed Riverbend United Church and gave Mr. Hancock a spectacularly rough ride. Some who were there described this event as “probably the worst night of Mr. Hancock’s political career.” (At right, a rattled Mr. Hancock tries to explain himself to a TV reporter.)
Well, Premier Ed Stelmach’s minister of education can take a little comfort from one thing: it’s not really personal. Something is happening here in Alberta, though, and it’s not good news for Conservatives. It sure as heck won’t be fixed by a mere cabinet shuffle.
However, a cabinet shuffle is all we’re likely to get tomorrow – Mr. Stelmach is said to be phoning some lucky caucus members, and some not-so-lucky ones, with good and bad news this evening.
Now, if the timing of this shuffle seems slightly off to you, it isn’t really. It’s been on again and off again more times than a … well, never mind that … but lots of times. Presumably the premier and his advisers finally hit on this particular moment because it allows him to leave town on his Middle Eastern junket without the risk of another big Wildrose Alliance raid on his backbenches. Leastways, any raiding done now by the Wildrose party can now be dismissed as “sour grapes” by ambitious nobodies who failed to snag a cabinet post, or who like Guy Boutilier weren’t even in the caucus.
Well, good luck with that one, Mr. Premier. As they say, any old port in a storm!
Fact is, with or without a new minister of health – whether it turns out to be Fred Horne, as rumoured last week, or Doug Horner, as rumoured last night, or someone else from the horn section – the premier has a big job on his hands getting this turned around in time for the next general election.
Put simply, there’s a heck of a lot of dissatisfaction right now in this province – not to mention outright fear – about where Mr. Stelmach’s government is going with its mismanaged health care file.
This is partly because the management of the new province-wide “superboard” that today runs the branch of government known as Alberta Health Services is very widely perceived as spectacularly incompetent. It’s also widely accepted that the regional health authorities were disbanded at breathtaking cost to solve a political problem for the premier, not a problem, real or imagined, with actual health care delivery.
It hasn’t helped, of course, that virtually every major health-related file handled in the past year by Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet or Alberta Health Services has been bungled, and bungled badly: seniors’ prescription costs, flu shots for the masses, the delivery of mental health services, toothbrushes and tampons for mental health patients, borrowing from commercial banks to operate basic services, dumb-bunny PowerPoint presentations on the financial state of the health care system, or evaporating promises of new health facilities in communities around the province, it’s been the same story again and again. You name the health care issue, and Mr. Stelmach’s team has dropped the ball.
Seniors are leading the charge on health care in particular because, demographically speaking, they’re the portion of the population most likely to need sound public health care services. What’s more, they’ve been around long enough to have figured out how things work – specifically, what it takes to stave off a disaster ginned up by a bunch of clowns disguised as Tory politicians.
And that would be why a generally popular and moderate politician like Mr. Hancock got it with both barrels last night in a normally sympathetic venue like Edmonton-Whitemud.
So, if a cabinet shuffle won’t cure the Tories’ sickness, what will? Alas for Mr. Stelmach, the only remedy that’s likely to work is the one thing he seems constitutionally unable to consider. To wit: putting aside his rigid Chamber of Commerce market fundamentalism and moving the Conservatives to the political centre.
At the risk of belaboring this point, it seems pretty obvious at a time when the electorate has concluded Mr. Stelmach and his party are well past their best-before date, that offering exactly the same program as the exciting new far-right political party isn’t going to persuade anyone not to vote for the Wildrose.
Positioning the Conservatives sensibly to the left of the Wildrose and to calmingly to the right of the other opposition parties, might appeal to nervous Nelly voters sick of the Tories but frightened of big change, not to mention Liberal and NDP supporters prepared to vote strategically to keep the scary Alliance out of power.
Such a strategy would be good news for MLAs like Mr. Hancock, who could start calling for the policies they really believe in and that their constituents, judging from last night’s performance, pretty clearly want.
But that means Mr. Horne, or Mr. Horner, or whomever Mr. Stelmach hands the problem-plagued health portfolio will have to have both the conviction and the authority to reverse some of the worst health care decisions made in recent history in this country, and maybe even to send AHS’s Australian supremo packing back to the antipodes. And it means Mr. Stelmach, the George W. Bush of Alberta, would have to own up explicitly to having made a mistake. How likely do you think those things are to happen?
Not likely. But in their present cranky and skeptical mood, not many Alberta voters are going to be fooled by mere window dressing.
Without any persuasive alternatives in the centre or on the moderate left, these same voters may just vote for the Wildrose Alliance out of devil-may-care spite.