Archive for November, 2010

The kraken awakes, again: The secret Conservative health privatization agenda resurfaces

The secret slide show emerges from the deep: Moving Forward indeed!

Just when it looked like we might finally have a slow day on the Alberta health care front, the PowerPoint Fairy intervened today to keep the adrenalin pumping with a slideshow that seems to set out the Conservative secret agenda to privatize health care.

The Dot-PPT Fairy – in the guise of a “concerned citizen” – leaked the “internal” presentation to the Alberta Liberals.

Readers will recall that when we all went home Friday afternoon at the end of a raucous week in Alberta that saw the Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for health care and the CEO of the province’s health “super board” both fired, Alberta Health Services Board members quitting right and left, and all manner of salacious accusations flying, everyone expected today to see more of the same.

After all, three Board members had quit to protest the firing by the government of the man whose fate they were supposed to control, Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, who greased his own skids with his now-infamous Cookie Walk last Thursday. And, indeed, another one quit today to protest the same thing.

Professional legislative pundits were quick to the microphone with the explanation that the remaining 10 AHS Board members were only sticking around out of a sense of responsibility lest the health care system fall apart without them – which is, as they say, a likely story.

Even better, New Democrat Brian Mason had vowed to rise on a point of personal privilege and accuse Edmonton-Rutherford Conservative MLA Fred Horne, the new Parliamentary Assistant for health care, of trying to intimidate Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Dr. Raj Sherman, the loquacious former Parliamentary Assistant for health care who last week found himself consigned to the lonely life of an Independent on the Opposition benches for his sins.

For reasons unspoken (but reliably reported to have been a personal plea to the NDP leader from Dr. Sherman), Mr. Mason announced this morning he was dropping his plan to go after the usually mild-mannered Mr. Horne.

What discussions Dr. Sherman had over the weekend, and with whom, remain a mystery. Perhaps someone’s “better angels” prevailed, an outcome at least one commentator pleaded for Monday morning. More likely, one suspects, it was something more devilish. Regardless, only time will tell, and perhaps not even that.

But with Mr. Mason’s plans withdrawn, the dull day that might have resulted did not when the aforementioned concerned citizen leaked the 27-page slide show to the Alberta Liberals.

The presentation provides evidence that suggests, just as Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann says, the Conservatives have a hidden agenda to privatize health care after the next election.

The internal Alberta Health and Wellness department presentation sets out how the government would de-list medical some procedures now covered by health insurance, make private insurance coverage legal and let physicians double dip in the public and private system at the same time.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky denied all, but the talkative Dr. Sherman, in the words of the Edmonton Journal, “confirmed the authenticity of the leaked document.” And Dr. Sherman was, after all, until a week ago Mr. Zwozdesky’s assistant.

The slideshow – called “Alberta’s Health Legislation: Moving Forward” – describes the first phase of the government’s sneak privatization plan as “Building Public Confidence,” though it might more accurately be entitled “Fooling the Public,” and outlines changes included in the so-called Alberta Health Act that is now before the Legislature.

The second part of the show, called “Legislation,” but which more aptly might be called “Screwing the Public,” explains how the plan will really work when it’s too late do anything about it.

“If the Premier follows the agenda outlined in this document, it’s the end of public health care in Alberta and possibly Canada itself,” Dr. Swann said in a news release. “This is one of the most serious issues Albertans have ever faced – a back-door, middle of the night attempt by a deceitful government to move to two-tiered, American-style health care.”

Alert readers will recall how the PowerPoint Fairy also put in an appearance in December 2009, when she revealed that Alberta Health services was “quickly going broke.”

That presentation – cooked up by three of the now departed Mr. Duckett’s senior executives – was called “The Great Alberta Experiment,” which, as was observed in this space at that time, got one thing right. “The creation of AHS was an experiment – an ill-thought-out political experiment that has gone seriously awry with consequences it will take a long time and lot of money to fix.”

More true now than ever, I’d say.

Given today’s development, it’s hard to see why conservative Albertans fed up with Mr. Stelmach’s far-right government but unable to bring themselves to vote Liberal or NDP wouldn’t support the Wildrose Alliance.

After all, except for their ritual repetition of the phrase “publicly funded,” at least the Alliance says pretty much right out that they’re going to screw us on health care and presents us with a reasonably honest explanation of how they propose to do it.

As for the rest of us, the arguments are more compelling than ever not to vote for Mr. Stelmach’s party, which not only can’t run health care properly, but can’t even seem to manage a competent wrecking job!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Alberta’s ER crisis moves from full-blown swivet to three-ring circus!

Alberta’s health care debate is set to resume Monday in the provincial Legislature. Historical Alberta buildings may not appear exactly as illustrated… is it just me, or is this joke wearing a little thin? Oh well, in for a penny… Below: Raj Sherman, Fred Horne. A couple of nice guys caught up in something bigger than both of them?

Can Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government really be so vindictive they’d go after a high-profile critic’s medical license?

That kind of thing was being said in Alberta last week by people who didn’t appear to be joking.

The province is in enough of an uproar over the government’s spectacular mishandling of the health care file that plenty of Albertans are inclined to believe it. You can’t go into a restaurant, a hair salon or a Tim Horton’s in Alberta these days without hearing things like this said aloud by ordinary folks for whom politics and health care policy are normally a foreign country.

Even a week ago, most people who noticed would have said impossible. After all, nobody’s that dumb!

Well, today – as the province’s Emergency Room crisis morphs from a full-blown swivet into a three-ring circus – Albertans are not so sure.

Alert readers recall that a waiting-time crisis in Alberta’s hospital emergency wards has been growing ever larger on the provincial radar screen for weeks.

Then things really started to spin out of control around 3 a.m. on Nov. 17 when Dr. Raj Sherman, an emergency room physician and the only medical doctor in Premier Stelmach’s Conservative caucus, sent an emotional email to numerous political and medical colleagues. The email tore a strip off his own government for its handling of the crisis.

The next day the likeable Dr. Sherman, then the Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, apologized to Mr. Stelmach. The premier publicly forgave him and sensible political observers concluded everyone would soon go back to sleep.

After all, surely that’s what would have happened if Premier Stelmach and his close advisors had even a grain of political common sense. Well, boy, was that bet ever out to lunch!

On Nov. 19, a Friday, Dr. Sherman got up on his hind legs in the Legislature and continued to criticize the premier. He also aimed some barbed shots at the managers of Alberta Health Services and former Health Minister Ron Liepert, a politician with a reputation for being thin-skinned. (Mr. Liepert seems to be the person principally responsible for setting in motion the whole loony plan to eliminate the province’s nine health regions, which by and large had been working pretty well, and replace them with a single health board, which has been a disaster.)

Also on Nov. 19, Stephen Duckett, the undiplomatic Australian CEO of Alberta’s single province-wide health board, did his now notorious Cookie Walk on his way back from a meeting about how to fix the ER brouhaha. Who can know what he was thinking when he started waving an oatmeal cookie at reporters and screeching while the cameras rolled? Maybe he was homesick for Australia?

Needless to say, these events ratcheted up the level of hysteria considerably.

We can only speculate on this next point, but it appears as if over the weekend, Mr. Liepert and possibly other hard liners in the Conservative caucus demanded that the premier sack Dr. Sherman. As if that would shut him up!

On Monday, the premier flip-flopped and canned Dr. Sherman.

On Wednesday, Mr. Stelmach all but demanded that Mr. Duckett be fired by the supposedly independent AHS Board.

Wednesday night and Thursday, the Opposition parties organized a 27-hour health crisis filibuster in the Legislature that left everyone tired and cranky, and several with graying stubble on their chins.

On Thursday, a divided AHS Board complied with the demands from the premier and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky that Mr. Duckett be forced to take the high jump. Over the side he went – with the promise of $680,000 in Alberta taxpayers’ money to ease his way.

At this point, as readers can imagine, it seemed impossible matters could get any more hysterical.

But that was before Friday, when we learned from the press that Dr. Sherman was accusing several Conservative MLAs and the president of the Alberta Medical Association of taking part in a smear campaign orchestrated by the Conservative government to discredit him.

Among Dr. Sherman’s startling accusations, all reported in plain English in the pages of the Edmonton Journal, were:

  • That he’d been told by the head psychiatrist of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta that his medical license could be suspended if he didn’t submit to a mental health assessment.
  • That he’d been informed by Yvonne Fritz, the minister of children and youth services, the pleasant-looking lady usually seen sitting behind the premier’s right shoulder during Question Period: “Raj, you need to be taken to emergency, and you need to see a psychiatrist to be locked up.”
  • That Government Whip Robin Campbell, “Called me a cancer. He said: ‘Raj, you’re a doctor. You know what we do with cancers. We cut them out.’”
  • And that Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Fred Horne took part in the alleged conspiracy when he discussed Dr. Sherman’s mental state early in the week with AMA President Dr. Patrick White, a psychiatrist.

Needless to say, everyone named by the Journal forcefully denies Dr. Sherman’s interpretation of events.

All we can say with conviction at this point is that more sound and fury – though, signifying what remains an open question – is sure to be heard on Monday, when NDP Leader Brian Mason says he will rise on a point of privilege and allege that the usually mild-mannered Mr. Horne engaged in “intimidation and obstruction” against Dr. Sherman.

Now, Mr. Horne strikes most people a man normally as likeable and positive as Dr. Sherman. One can’t help but think that these are two nice guys caught up in something bigger than both of them.

Be that as it may, Mr. Mason’s argument is pretty clear: “Mr. Horne has been around the medical profession a very long time and he undoubtedly knows that when you bring those kinds of suggestions forward to someone in a senior, responsible position, they have to take some action and they have to initiate something,” the NDP leader told the Journal. “I can’t see it as anything else but a calculated attempt to harm Mr. Sherman’s reputation and interfere in his ability to do his job.”

So fasten your seatbelts, folks. We aren’t getting off this rollercoaster any time soon!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Stephen Duckett walks the plank, but won’t be the last man over the side

Now-sacked Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett has his infamous cookie moment, captured by CTV News on Nov. 19. The rest is history. Unfortunately for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, history continues to unfold. Below: Ken Allred.


This column appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

There’s blood in the water – and it’s not just Stephen Duckett’s!

The crusty CEO of Alberta Health Services may have been the one made to walk the plank Wednesday, but Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach emerges gravely wounded at the end of the sorry trail of cookie crumbs that led to Mr. Duckett’s termination.

No matter how you spin it, there is no good news for Mr. Stelmach in the ludicrous soap opera that climaxed with the firing – and it was a firing – of the PhD economist the premier’s Conservative government imported from Australia less than two years ago to guide the province’s health care system toward the future.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, ending Mr. Duckett’s unhappy tenure at head of Alberta’s year-old health care “super board,” was the man’s own contemptuous refusal to talk to several Edmonton radio and television reporters while munching an oatmeal and raisin confection and screeching, “I’m eating my cookie! Can’t you see I’m eating my cookie?”

Mr. Duckett obviously thought this was a hilarious way to tell the local media to bug off. But when a video clip of his performance was uploaded to YouTube.com and went viral, watched by about 150,000 viewers to date * – including, apparently, the premier – few others were amused.

In one way, it’s extremely odd to see a high-paid senior executive brought down by a trivial moment of bad judgment. In another, though, it was entirely appropriate, given Mr. Duckett’s consistent contempt for most of the players in Alberta’s health care system from the day he arrived in our province.

Last year, at a time credible new political challengers to the premier were emerging, large numbers of Albertans began to tell their Conservative MLAs they were very worried about the state of the health care system.

The government’s attitude improved. Stelmach shuffled abrasive health minister Ron Liepert to the energy portfolio, where he would alienate fewer voters. He replaced him with Gene Zwozdesky, whose approach was to go slow and soothe Albertans’ fears.

But Mr. Duckett’s confrontational style frequently frustrated Mr. Zwozdesky’s efforts. And so it was last Friday when he blundered onto the stage with a performance straight out of a Monty Python skit, just as Mr. Zwozdesky was struggling to overcome the latest uproar over the pressure on the province’s emergency wards.

Called on the carpet, Mr. Duckett coughed up a half-hearted apology, but it was too little, too late. Under obvious pressure from the premier, a deeply divided AHS board pulled the trigger – reaching a ‘mutually agreed decision’ with Mr. Duckett that he should ship out at once, at a cost to Alberta taxpayers of close to $700,000. Three Duckett supporters on the board are nevertheless expected to quit in protest.

The brouhaha also widens the split in the Conservative caucus between hard-right market fundamentalists and moderates committed to maintaining public health care. St. Albert MLA Ken Allred went even further, siding with the Opposition parties on requiring ER wait times to be legislated.

The public is frightened. The government has lost its ability to pretend Alberta Health Services calls the shots on unpopular health care decisions. The premier looks as if he has completely lost control. To top it all off, if you have the bad fortune to end up in an emergency ward, you’ll have to wait as long as ever.

Now, while the often-tactless Mr. Duckett can’t be held personally responsible for the state of Alberta’s health system, he was obviously the wrong choice for a job that requires diplomacy and sensitivity. Mr. Liepert, who hired him, must share some blame as well.

But it’s hard not to conclude the person most responsible for allowing a difficult but manageable situation to spin out of control is the premier himself. Indeed, it is not too strong to say Mr. Stelmach’s ability to lead the province and fix its ailing health care system has been gravely compromised by this affair.

It’s hard to shake the feeling Mr. Duckett won’t be the last man over the side because of this.

* As of today, the number of viewers has shot up to close to 250,000.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

CORRECTION:


St. Albert Conservative MLA Ken Allred broke ranks with his party in the Legislature Wednesday, speaking with the Opposition parties in favour of an amendment to the Alberta Health Act made by Raj Sherman that would legislate emergency room wait times. Incorrect information appeared in this blog Saturday, suggesting that Mr. Allred had sided with the Wildrose Alliance on the issue of dismantling Alberta Health Services. My apologies to Mr. Allred for this error, made solely by me in my haste to file my column on time in the midst of a breaking news story.

AHS news: The Eagle has landed … but for how long?

Capital Health’s University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, back in the day. Below: Chris Eagle, Sheila Weatherill.

For the moment at least, with Stephen Duckett gone over the side, the acting CEO of Alberta Health Services is Dr. Chris Eagle.

Until yesterday, Dr. Eagle was the AHS Executive Vice-President of Quality and Service Improvement, with, according to his official on-line biography, responsibility for overseeing the operations of the larger academic hospitals, the central health service delivery zone, infection prevention and control, patient experience and ensuring quality and service improvement throughout the organization.

Also according to his short on-line bio, he held several senior posts with the old Calgary Health Region, including serving as President and Chief Operating Officer.

So Dr. Eagle would seem to meet the necessary criteria for a health agency CEO set out by University of Alberta nursing professor and health policy researcher Donna Wilson, who told the Globe and Mail that whoever runs the health board should have actually been in charge of a hospital at least, better yet a health board.

The acting position is expected to last three months, after which a permanent occupant needs to be found, the Globe reported, adding, “Dr. Eagle is free to seek that position.”

Alas, while I am informed that Dr. Eagle is a very likeable and capable person, he is unlikely to want the heartache and responsibility of occupying that post in such difficult times. Perhaps he will reconsider when he thinks about the bottom line, but it seems at least possible that the AHS Board (what’s left of it, anyway, after the Duckett loyalists get finished resigning) will need to look for a new AHS supremo.

Obviously, as we have seen in the past 24 hours, the government of Alberta enjoys a certain amount of influence with the AHS board – enough, indeed, that it would be possible to argue, if one were so inclined, that in reality the government runs the board directly and we could save a few dollars on board members’ fees and room rentals simply by recognizing that reality.

So what would be wrong, one wonders, with finding an AHS CEO a little more simpatico with the cautious and practical worldview of Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky? Indeed, as was suggested in this space back in the day when Mr. Duckett and Mr. Zwozdesky were said to have great minds that thought alike, why not Sheila Weatherill, former boss of the Capital Health Region, back when the CHR was a leading health care innovator lauded around the world for its effective programs?

You know, that Sheila Weatherill, the “health care genius” Edmonton lost when Ron Liepert, then the minister of health, set about wreaking havoc on the health care system. The one who, according to the Edmonton Journal, “set out to turn the Edmonton health system into the Mayo Clinic of the north, a world centre of excellence in pediatrics, cardiology, neurology, women’s health care and a variety of other fields.”

You know, that was back before they were comparing Edmonton’s emergency wards to comparable facilities in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

Back in the fall of 2009, when Deputy Premier Doug Horner named the “incredible team” that would lead the province’s five new Alberta Innovates agencies, who should be on the board of AI’s Technology Futures division but Ms. Weatherill. So, obviously, Ms. Weatherill still has her foot in the door and continues to enjoy the confidence of the people who are now calling shots in Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet.

In that February 2010 post I wrote: “From a political standpoint, Mr. Zwozdesky would do well to make things look as much as possible like they used to, keeping the health system as quiet as possible for as long as possible to fulfill his mandate of making Mr. Stelmach re-electable once again.” Well, I guess that goes double now!

Ms. Weatherill would seem perfect for that role but for one thing – the controversial $1.5-million payout plus pension she was handed when she was skidded by Mr. Liepert in the summer of 2008 to grease the wheels for his dream of … well, whatever his dream was.

So, like, now that we’re paying Duckett to go away, why not, eh? I mean, other than the fact she’s not from Calgary…

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Cookiegate: If Duckett’s doomed, the cookie did it!

Might as well play that movie one more time! Below: Stephen Duckett.

Was “Cookiegate” the straw that broke the camel’s back, ending Stephen Duckett’s unhappy tenure as the president and CEO of Alberta Health Services?

Later this morning we will know for sure, but it certainly looks that way. With Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach publicly grumbling about how Mr. Duckett’s bizarre television performance last Friday has become a serious distraction from fixing the ailing health care system and the Alberta Health Services Board meeting in secret conclave last night and this morning to figure out what to do about it, it certainly seems as if Mr. Duckett’s Canadian career is hanging by a thread.

“Cookiegate,” of course, refers to Mr. Duckett’s contemptuous refusal to talk to several Edmonton-area radio and television reporters while munching what appeared to be a chocolate-chip confection and repeatedly screeching, “I’m eating my cookie! Can’t you see I’m eating my cookie?”

Mr. Duckett obviously thought this was a hilariously funny way to tell the local media to bug off. A video clip of the entire disgraceful performance was posted to YouTube.com and went viral, with close to 130,000 views by midnight last night.

In a way, it would be odd if such a trivial matter were to precipitate the return to Australia of the crusty chief executive, imported to Alberta with great fanfare in 2009 by former health minister Ron Liepert to run the province’s then-new health care “superboard.”

In another way, it would be entirely appropriate, given Mr. Duckett’s obvious contempt for most players in Alberta’s troubled health care system.

Now, Dr. Duckett, as he was often known – a PhD economist, not a physician – acted like this almost from Day 1. This was the way he frequently dealt with union leaders, media, ordinary Albertans who had their doubts about policies and changes he pushed, or anyone else he viewed as getting in his way.

Of course, there was a day when that didn’t much matter to the Alberta government. This was especially true when the abrasive and unpopular Mr. Liepert was minister. But over time the effect was to alienate many health professionals who would have worked with him to improve the system. It also turned many voters against Mr. Stelmach just as credible new political challengers were emerging.

Last year, when Albertans in large numbers began to let their Conservative MLAs know they were very unhappy about the state of the health care system, the government’s attitude improved. Mr. Stelmach replaced Mr. Liepert with Gene Zwozdesky, a minister whose approach was to go slow and soothe Albertans’ fears. But Mr. Duckett’s ideas and confrontational style often frustrated the minister’s best efforts.

Last week, Mr. Zwozdesky was struggling to overcome the latest unexpected health crisis. With emergency wards in chaos, even the government’s parliamentary assistant for health – Edmonton emergency room physician Raj Sherman, the only doctor in the Conservative caucus – broke with the government to publicly tear a strip off AHS for its appalling performance. (On Monday, Dr. Sherman would be kicked out of the caucus for his efforts.) Public attitudes were moving quickly from serious concern to a conviction the health system is falling apart.

At that delicate moment, Mr. Duckett blundered onto the stage with a ridiculous performance straight out of a Monty Python skit.

Called on the carpet by Mr. Zwozdesky, Mr. Duckett published a half-hearted apology on his official blog. “On Nov. 19, we had a meeting of clinical and operational leaders to develop new protocols to reduce Emergency Department wait times. The meeting made great progress,” he wrote. “That success has to some extent been overshadowed by my poor responses to the media afterwards, which I deeply regret and for which I apologize unreservedly.”

To some extent indeed! Not satisfied to eat a portion of crow, as presumably instructed, he glancingly blamed his public relations people – you see, they’d decided earlier to have a physician be the spokesperson that day. Well, Mr. Duckett is the CEO, and as such he is the spokesperson, whether or not he happens to be eating a cookie.

Regardless of that blunder, the tactless Mr. Duckett was always the wrong man for a job that requires diplomacy and sensitivity. He is not personally responsible for the entire mess in which Alberta’s health system now finds itself, but his ability to lead it out of the crisis was clearly compromised.

That, in itself, should have been enough for Mr. Stelmach to get rid of the man. But it was when he became a serious political liability to Mr. Stelmach’s shaky government that his fate appears to have been sealed. More than anything, it was Cookiegate that unexpectedly accomplished that goal.

We’ll know later today for sure, but it appears very much as if the time has come for Stephen Duckett to return to Australia.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

The Sherman saga: time to break out the Raj Against Machine T-shirts?

Alberta Conservatives discuss the fate of Dr. Raj Sherman over the weekend. Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Raj Sherman, Raj Pannu, Raj Against the Machine.

Back in the day, when Raj Pannu was one of only two New Democrats who could win a seat in the Alberta Legislature, the province’s hardy social democrats sold a T-shirt that read “Raj Against the Machine.”

Now it’s Raj Against the Machine all over again, only this time, with Dr. Pannu happily in retirement, the Raj in question is Raj Sherman, who until yesterday was the Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, the only physician in the crumbling Tory caucus and the government’s Parliamentary Assistant to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky.

Dr. Sherman finds himself unexpectedly in opposition – soon to be assigned a seat as an “Independent,” probably not to far from where the other Raj used to sit.

You see, Dr. Sherman did the one thing that’s sure to earn an MLA the bum’s rush from the government of Premier Ed Stelmach: he made the mistake of speaking up forcefully on behalf of his constituents and other Albertans, condemning the mismanagement of health care by Mr. Stelmach’s ongoing gong show.

Now, before we break out the T-shirts and the Legislative Medal of Honour, however, some qualifiers about Dr. Sherman are needed. While he is an extremely nice person who most people instinctively like – seemingly both sincere and a little naïve – he is not a politician of Dr. Pannu’s skill or commitment. He’s presumably a terrific physician, but he doesn’t strike one as a guy who can plot out a chess game 20 moves in advance.

So, while this soap opera has more twists than bag of pretzels, it seems likely that Dr. Sherman is as surprised as the rest of us to find himself sitting on the other side of the House. Arguably, as an emergency room physician with an insider’s knowledge of the chaos in the province’s health care system, he could have spoken out before his father was hit by a life-threatening illness.

That said, he got into trouble by trying to do the right thing. The dizzying series of turns that brought him to where is sits today illustrates both how badly Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives mismanage everything they touch, and how deeply divided is the Conservative caucus – with a far-right faction that is closer to the Wildrose Alliance and a moderate faction deeply frightened by where their party is headed.

Last Wednesday, Dr. Sherman returned from a trip to India, apparently deeply fatigued, upset at his father’s illness and unhappy about the hard time his emergency room colleagues were giving him about the mess in their hospitals. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, he dashed off an astonishing email assailing the government’s mishandling of health care. All but calling the premier a liar, he sent it hither and yon, whence it eventually found its way to the media.

On Thursday, apparently after a talking-to by the premier, Dr. Sherman issued a rambling apology that attempted to shift blame for Alberta’s latest health care uproar from the premier to a “knucklhead” Alberta Health Services, the province’s so-called health care super board.

The premier’s office tried to pass off the matter as an insignificant family spat, with a spokesman asserting that “the premier is not the type of person who is going to pull someone into his office and give them a dressing down.”

Well, that was then. On Friday, apparently convinced he had a license to continue to be a thorn in the government’s side, Dr. Sherman got the calamitous former health minister Ron Liepert in his gun sights and dared to criticize him for not dealing with the developing crisis in the province’s emergency rooms. He also assailed the job done by AHS Board Chair Ken Hughes, a reliably loyal old Conservative plod.

Over the weekend, presumably, the phone lines to the premier burned up and, by noon yesterday, Dr. Sherman was on his way to opprobrium of opposition.

Which leaves us where, exactly?

Well, the caucus is now without a medical doctor to speak for that constituency, which will likely suit hard-right hard-liners like Mr. Liepert and Finance Minister Ted Morton, who don’t need no stinkin’ facts to make ideological decisions about how to mismanage health care.

By the same token, it will probably deeply worry Edmonton-area moderates like Health Minister Zwozdesky, former health minister Dave Hancock and Fred Horne, chair of the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Health, who squeaked into office by 62 votes in 2008. They have been reliably informed of the mood of their Capital Region constituents on this issue.

The message has been made clear once again that caucus solidarity is more important than representing citizens or trying to fix the province’s problems – which should make life easier for the premier. At least for the moment…

As for Dr. Sherman, it’s easy to imagine he will find life in opposition uncongenial. Whatever happens in the next general election, and whatever is being said just now, it seems probable he will return to the full-time practice of medicine.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Why Canadians keep falling for the Afghan scam: we want to believe

Prime Minister Stephen Harper celebrates the success of NATO’s Lisbon summit. Canadian politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Lawrence Cannon.

There is a moment in a confidence swindle when the mark begins to suspect that something is amiss.

This is the pivotal juncture for the swindler. The victim’s faith must be maintained long enough for the hustle to succeed.

Why do victims so often remain in the scam until the con artist has absconded with their fortune, even as their nose detects the first sharp whiffs of fraud? Because they want to believe.

But it is not so much greed that motivates the victims of swindles, as you have been told many times. It is pride. No one wants to appear to friends and loved ones to have been a sucker. The confidence trickster subtly beguiles our pride to keep us playing along long enough to be fleeced.

Canadians are now at this crucial moment with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Afghanistan scam. On the face of it, the lie is obvious enough. “Oh, if only I had trusted my instincts,” we’ll tell ourselves tomorrow. But for the moment we need to believe. Otherwise we would have to acknowledge we have been played for fools, at great cost in blood and treasure.

The headline in my local newspaper yesterday reads, “2014 Afghan pullout date firm: Cannon… Foreign minister reinforces prime minister’s declaration.” A declaration! Surely that sounds solid enough, we marks tell ourselves. As solid as the Rock of Gibraltar!

And so, writes Juliet O’Neill of the delightfully named Postmedia News, “Canada’s end date of March 2014 for a training mission in Afghanistan is firm despite NATO’s plan to continue non-combat operations there, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said Friday. ‘We might be pressured obviously, but I think the prime minister has made this perfectly clear,’” the appropriately named Mr. Cannon went on, echoing one of the favourite phrases of Richard Nixon, another politician who promised to withdraw from a difficult and foredoomed war according to a tight schedule. “‘March of 2014 is when we will be leaving,’ Cannon said at a news conference.”

Not just 2014. March of 2014! Surely we can take that to the bank?

Alas, no, this is the grifter’s wheedling call for us to maintain our faith just a little longer.

Even the prime minister’s ideological fellow travellers acknowledge this, for heaven’s sake! Speaking of another, similar news report in another newspaper, no less a pillar of the Canadian Establishment than Norman Spector, at various times prime minister Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff and Canada’s Ambassador to Israel, wrote yesterday in the Globe and Mail: “Here’s my question: In light of Mr. Harper’s past statements – from the election campaign of 2008 right up to a couple of weeks ago – why would a single Canadian, whatever their political allegiance, believe a single word of this report, when NATO and the U.S. are already hedging on 2014 as the end date?”

Indeed. Why would anyone? Because, of course, we want to keep the faith, just a little bit longer.

Well, here are some facts you can take to the bank:

Canadian soldiers, “training behind the wire,” will continue to die in combat. Historically, so-called combat “trainers” frequently find themselves in the thick of the fiercest fighting, lest they lose credibility with their students. If Canadians support the training mission, as Ipsos-Reid claims, it is because they do not understand what a military training mission entails.

“Canada’s end date of March 2014” is not firm. We will be pressured, as Mr. Cannon acknowledged, and our prime minister will fold like a tent.

The cost to our supposedly strapped national treasury will continue in the billions of dollars, while other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries praise Canada’s “absolutely essential” sacrifices but do not step up to make their own.

The fight is not going well. Indeed, on the battlefields of Afghanistan, the Pashtun-based insurgency we call the Taliban is gaining confidence and strength. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s claim notwithstanding, it is folly to say the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be ready to stand on its own by 2014, or ever. Not, at any rate, as long the Pashtun people, the country’s largest ethnic group, and their nuclear-armed Pakistani neighbour, which NATO dares not challenge, support Mr. Karzai’s foes.

In other words, not only have we been lied to, we are still being lied to. The only question is whether Canadians will wake up and smell the coffee.

The facts are plain. Only pride stands in our way. As the Bible usefully reminds us: “Pride goeth before destruction.”

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

B-roll reveals breach of Section 21 of the Alberta Strange Sketch Act

It is not normally the custom of this blog merely to replay videographical material recorded by the actual ladies and gentlemen of the media, who are paid to pursue investigations of a disquisitionary nature.

Nevertheless, it is from time to time the mission of your blogger to draw the attention of readers to connections and parallels between seemingly unrelated data that help to explain some of the more enigmatic and impenetrable phenomena of modern life.

So, for example, while the exchange shown above between Stephen Duckett, the well-known doctor of economics who also heads Alberta’s rapidly disintegrating province-wide health board, and several employees of the media of mass communication seemingly makes little sense to Albertans, and even less to those not resident here in Wildrose Country, viewed in its proper context it is rendered coherent and lucid.

On its own, the video clip above is simply impenetrable, except as a possible violation of Section 21 of the Alberta Strange Sketch Act, which prohibits the use of a cookie and a stout man in a goatee to conclude a sketch.

However, to paraphrase George Orwell, the following clip renders the exchange between Dr. Duckett and the ravening jackals of the gutter press as clear as window glass.

And that, dear readers, is how the health care system crumbles. Dr. (PhD) Duckett is a Great Australian.™

MLA’s attack on Alberta premier suggests growing crisis in Conservative caucus

Medics await the outbreak of chaos in a typical Alberta emergency ward. Facilities may not be exactly as illustrated … but they do include tents! Below: Raj Sherman.

The near-universal dissemination yesterday of a harshly critical, typo-filled and weirdly emotional email from Raj Sherman, Alberta’s Parliamentary Assistant for health and the only physician in the Conservative caucus, is another sign of how deeply troubled the moribund party has become under Premier Ed Stelmach’s leadership.

That Dr. Sherman – MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark and also an emergency room physician – later yesterday trotted out a rambling explanation and apology that attempted to shift blame for Alberta’s latest health care uproar from the premier to Alberta Health Services, the province’s so-called health care super board, did little to reduce the damage done.

After all, as everyone in Alberta well knows, the AHS is a creature of Mr. Stelmach’s government, and these days Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky seems to be calling the shots as the health authority lurches from crisis to catastrophe. So dismissing the AHS as “knuckleheads,” as Dr. Sherman did in an emergency Legislative debate on emergency health care that the government gave in and allowed yesterday afternoon, is tantamount to calling Messrs. Stelmach and Zwozdesky the same thing.

The latest crisis began last month with the carefully orchestrated leak of a letter from a group of emergency room physicians who warned of a “potential catastrophic collapse” in many urban emergency wards. The government managed to sidestep an NDP call for an emergency legislative debate on the issue Oct. 25, partly because Liberal Opposition Leader David Swann, also a physician, apparently forgot to show up for the vote.

But the crisis continued at a vigorous boil until yesterday, after Dr. Sherman pitched in with his emotional missive on Wednesday. The former federal Liberal supporter pointed the epistle at a long list of colleagues in the health care system plus many of his Conservative caucus-mates and let fly.

The letter harshly assailed the government for its mishandling of health care delivery in Alberta, especially the disastrous conditions in the province’s emergency rooms. In it, Dr. Sherman all but called the premier a liar.

“The premier made a promise to the ER doctors in writing and has broken his promise not only to the ER doctors, but also to the seniors, the 1.8 million Albertans who present for emergency care and their 2 million family members, and to all frontline healthcare professionals,” Dr. Sherman wrote. “I will be meeting the premier today and my progressive conservative caucas (sic) colleagues tomorrow to discuss my future in his government as my trust in him and his cabinet is severly (sic) tarnished.”

Dr. Sherman ended his e-message with the words, “feel free to forward to whomever you wish,” an invitation that seems to have been taken at face value by everyone who received the email. Copies, of course, where swiftly sent to the gutter press. At current rates of duplication, indeed, everyone in Alberta with an email account should have received a copy by tomorrow evening. (Click here to read an unedited version of Dr. Sherman’s email in its entirety.)

Mr. Stelmach’s loyalists, unsurprisingly, were soon whispering that Dr. Sherman is having an emotional breakdown and ought not to be taken too seriously. However, at the same time, the premier’s office was publicly handling the case of the congenial and popular West Edmonton ER doc with a degree of caution suitable for handling radioactive materials.

Indeed, the kid-glove treatment received by Dr. Sherman from the premier’s office suggests the Conservative Party’s inner circle has been badly shaken by this latest development in this latest crisis of public confidence in the health care system.

A year ago, Dr. Sherman would have been booted from the caucus for such an act of disloyalty faster than you could say Guy Boutelier.” At any rate, Mr. Boutelier, then the government MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo and a former minister in Ralph Klein’s cabinet, was skidded quickly enough in July 2009 when he dared to suggest the premier had broken a promise to his constituents when a seniors’ home was not completed in his riding.

In Dr. Sherman’s case, however, a spokesperson for the premier gently characterized his email as an understandable family spat. “From time to time in any family you have disagreements,” Cam Hantiuk told the Edmonton Journal. “The premier is not the type of person who is going to pull someone into his office and give them a dressing down.”

Not any more, at any rate. Leastways, not with an MLA like Dr. Sherman, whom the public tends to react to as a nice young man and committed physician, which may in fact be a pretty accurate portrayal. As for Mr. Boutilier, who suffered from a caucus reputation as a loose cannon, he’s long gone to the Wildrose Alliance caucus with a smile on his face.

For his part, Dr. Sherman now explains his outburst was the result of stress from his father’s illness and being reamed out by his fellow emergency room docs about the chaotic state if their department last week.

But the gentle treatment received by Dr. Sherman raises the question of how firm the once-iron-fisted premier’s grip remains on his increasingly restive caucus.

In recent days, there have been other rumoured caucus blow-ups behind closed doors as the emergency room crisis, which the government seems not to have anticipated at all, generated enough friction with the Alberta public for Conservatives MLAs to feel the heat.

One wonders how long it can be before a member of cabinet openly challenges the premier as Dr. Sherman did.

Could the next act in this drama be for Mr. Stelmach to be summoned to caucus meeting with instructions to surrender his leadership at the top of the agenda, as happened to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell last month?

This is extremely unlikely, one supposes. This is Alberta, after all. Still, if it were to happen, it’s hard to imagine Alberta’s stubborn premier doing the same thing as Mr. Campbell in the face of such an ultimatum and making a virtue of necessity by announcing his retirement.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

‘Senate democracy’ crusader Bert Brown’s actual regard for voters: zero

Conservative Senators make short work of Canadian democracy. Unelected senatorial sinecure holders may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Bert Brown.

Just in case you missed it, Bert Brown, tireless champion of Canadians’ right to be spared the depredations of an unelected Senate, voted Tuesday as a member of the unelected Senate to overturn the will of those same Canadians’ democratically elected representatives in the House of Commons.

Mr. Brown, of course, was dropped into that very same unelected Upper Chamber in 2007 by Canada’s profoundly anti-democratic prime minister, Stephen Harper, the Prorogation King.

Unlike most senators, Mr. Brown can claim the tiniest sliver of democratic legitimacy – having once been elected a Senator A’waitin’ in a meaningless 2004 vote foisted on Alberta as an amusing political gimmick by then-premier Ralph Klein and ignored by almost everyone in the province with a lick of sense.

The reality, of course, is that if the 2004 vote had been a real election for a real elected Senate seat, it is unlikely Mr. Brown could have won. That’s because more folks than this province’s hard-core rump of Senate-reform kooks would have bothered to run. That goes triple for the other three members of Alberta’s Senatorial wait staff. Still, that tattered shred of electoral justification notwithstanding, the retired Calgary-area farmer’s vote Tuesday night reeks of the vilest sort of hypocrisy.

Don’t expect to hear much about that in Alberta’s lamestream media, however. Their silence will be deafening on the question of what happened to the wails of outrage we might have expected from Alberta’s perpetually disaffected Senate bashers, whose number until recently included Mr. Brown.

You’d think there’d be a squeak or two of protest. Yet all we can hear out here in the echoing vastness of the Conservative heartland is the whistling of the winter wind.

Oh well, it’s only been a few hours since the Conservative Senators in the Upper House of Canada’s Parliament gave in to their worst undemocratic impulses and killed climate change legislation that had been adopted by a majority of the members of the House of Commons last spring. We can be sure that within a few days we’ll hear … absolutely nothing more.

You can count on that, actually. One thing that often surprises newcomers to Alberta is the degree to which we have perfected the Orwellian technique of “doublethink” – defined as “the act of simultaneously accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs.”

So, for example, when a group of labour unions had the temerity in 2007 to purchase television advertisements assailing the Conservative provincial government, the sound of garments being rent and teeth being gnashed by Tory supporters could be heard from Atlantic to Pacific. Unconstitutional, draconian and totally confusing legislation depriving opponents of the government of their pre-election right to free expression on forbidden topics was swiftly enacted by the provincial Legislature.

When, by contrast, the federal Conservatives purchased offensive advertisements attacking the Liberals, everyone shrugged and purported not to have noticed. What folks from other parts of Canada don’t understand is that, in Alberta, it’s only an attack ad if it attacks the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, back in the Conservative-dominated patronage chamber, Senators did their profoundly undemocratic deed without a word of debate. They killed the legislation dead without sending it back to the House for reconsideration and modification, as arguably is the Senate’s job and certainly is its tradition.

So if you don’t live in Alberta, and you happened to wonder what Mr. Harper thinks of the democratic expression of your will by your elected representatives, well, I guess this pretty well establishes it – as if we didn’t know already!

And here we thought the hottest issue in Alberta for 30 years has been the unelected and undemocratic nature of the Senate. Indeed, just weeks ago, the province’s three remaining Senators Still Waiting were in a tizzy because Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach made the sensible decision not to waste taxpayers’ money just now on another pointless vote to elect people to a position that, in effect, doesn’t exist. Instead, the premier just extended their meaningless terms until 2013.

Betty Unger, Cliff Breitkreuz and Link Byfield all demanded immediate action on the Senate file.

Where are they now, one can’t help but wonder? Do they have no problem with Mr. Harper’s Conservatives using the Red Chamber to overturn the Commons in a way unprecedented even during all those years of supposedly perfidious Liberal misrule? So it would seem.

Of the three, Mr. Byfield is the best known. Perhaps he is too busy running as the Wildrose Alliance candidate for the job of MLA in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock to comment. So, just in case no paid reporter bothers to root out Mr. Byfield to ask him the obvious question, here are some of his words from the past on this topic:

“I predict that Canada will be sent a constitutional ultimatum to institute (among other things) a full Triple-E Senate,” Mr. Byfield wrote in 2005 in the Winnipeg Free Press. “If it isn’t accepted within the requisite three years, I predict Albertans will vote on secession, using the referendum process laid out for Quebec in the federal Clarity Act. I can’t prove this, obviously, and I may be wrong. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Secession? Over an unelected Senate that blows up climate change legislation because it might prove inconvenient to Alberta’s tar-sands developers? Mind if I snooze while we wait for the unilateral declaration of independence?

Here’s betting that in fact, like the media, all three Senators A’waitin’ turn out to have no problem with the Senate’s most recent shocker. That’s because, in the time-honoured Alberta fashion, they will refuse to acknowledge the inconsistencies of their positions in more than a ritual way, if that.

More’s the pity, the days are gone when the likes of Mr. Brown would take his combine-harvester to a barley field and carve out the words “Triple-E Senate or Else” off the north end of Calgary International Airport’s main runway. Turns out he was only carving another alien crop circle.

The NDP has had it right about the Canadian Senate from the start. The only fit response is to abolish it.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.