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The Grande Prairie Hospital saga

The battle between Alberta government officials and a Calgary construction company over long delays building a new hospital in Grande Prairie that boiled over last week is more than a mere political he-said/she-said story.

There's a backstory that started the late days of Alberta's 44-year Tory Dynasty -- partly acknowledged early last week, interestingly, by a former Progressive Conservative infrastructure minister who now sits as a United Conservative Party MLA.

How bad are the delays and cost overruns at the still-unfinished regional hospital and cancer centre in the northwest Alberta oilpatch supply centre?

Well, the $763-million-plus facility was initially supposed cost $250 million. Later that became $520 million before costs escalated to their present estimate. They will likely be higher by the time the dust settles. The hospital was supposed to be finished circa 2015. Now 2019 is starting to look like a reach.

The seemingly never-ending saga officially became a brouhaha last Monday when the province announced it had issued a notice of default to Calgary-based Graham Construction, giving the company 15 days to come up with a plan to get the job done or face termination.

"This is a very serious step and not something we are doing lightly," said NDP Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen, who used to be a Tory, in the government's press release. "We have worked closely with the construction manager to resolve the issues but the bottom line is simply that the hospital is not progressing as it should."

On August 3, Graham Construction pushed back, saying in a statement to media the delays are the fault of the province, the result of "slapdash planning, poor budgeting and bad faith negotiations," as the Canadian Press summarized the complaint.

The Infrastructure Ministry's approach is just going to make things worse, the company argued, asserting the government is shooting the messenger because the department refuses to address "the real issues, including design management, budget alignment and the responsibilities and obligations" that are its job under the contract.

Later on August 3, Jansen responded, saying Graham Construction shouldn't have signed its amended contract with the government in 2016 if it didn't feel the job could be done on time or within budget.

The most interesting twist was added on July 31, though, when Wayne Drysdale, UCP MLA for Grande Prairie-Wapiti and Progressive Conservative infrastructure minister under premiers Alison Redford and Dave Hancock, was surprisingly frank in an interview with a local news website called Everything GP.

Maybe it was because he doesn't plan to seek re-election in the provincial election expected next year. Whatever the reason, Drysdale told Everything GP reporter Glory Przekop that the project was in trouble from the get-go in 2011.

"It was a different way of doing a project, it was kind of a fast-tracked thing, a design and build as you go," he explained. "Given the circumstances, they wanted to fast track it and tried something different."

"It was a poor way to build a project to start with, but we didn't know that at the time," Mr. Drysdale went on.

Surprisingly for a Conservative MLA, he even came to the defence of Jansen, who is hated in some quarters of the UCP for crossing the floor to join the NDP after she was hounded out of the PC leadership race by supporters of Jason Kenney. Kenney, of course, is now leader of the UCP.

"Unfortunately, this got dumped on us, including the now-minister," Drysdale said. "She's got it dumped on her and is trying to get it finished."

I don't have to tell regular followers of the Alberta political scene how unusual this kind statement is, even if Drysdale is being a little too charitable to previous Conservative governments in his interpretation of the process.

It was fast tracked all right, but not as an experiment in construction management. It was prematurely announced and hurried into construction in 2011 by a PC Party that faced a serious challenge from the Wildrose Party on its right.

Desperate to beat back the Wildrose challenge, the government of premier Ed Stelmach announced five major hospital projects in areas outside Alberta's two largest cities -- in Grande Prairie, High Prairie, Edson, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat.

It was a cynical (if politically understandable) ploy to shore up PC support in ridings that were vulnerable to the Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith, which was being portrayed by mainstream media as an upstart conservative party "soaring" in the polls. (One poll for much of that time actually, but panic is as panic does.)

Remembering this is the key to understanding the problems that have bedevilled the Grande Prairie hospital project ever since -- under Redford's calamitous leadership from the fall of 2011 to March 2014, under the brief Tory premierships of Hancock and Jim Prentice, and under Rachel Notley's NDP government since the spring of 2015.

The PCs rushed to have equipment dig holes so they could pose in front of them. Planning seems to have been so poor they actually started construction before they knew exactly what they planned to put in the hospital, and where. You could argue that was an innovative approach to contract management, but at this point surely such an innovation must be deemed a failure!

To compound the problem, a series of Conservative infrastructure and health ministers kept moving the goalposts, changing the scope and priorities of the plan. So this part of Graham Construction's complaint, at least, seems justified, whether or not company officials like Alberta Infrastructure officials working for an NDP government holding their feet to the fire now to get the job done.

Through 2011, developments in the Grande Prairie hospital project and those in the other communities were regularly updated with a stream of enthusiastic government press releases as the Stelmach and Redford governments geared up for the spring 2012 election.

In the event, though, Redford's government wasn't saved by hospital construction sites. It was redeemed by a Lake of Fire, the notorious theological bozo eruption in the 2012 election campaign that burned the Wildrose Party's chances to the ground.

Safely in office for another term, Drysdale was quoted in an October 2012 news release lauding the "innovative" nature of the Grande Prairie project. In the same release, health minister Fred Horne said, "details on the services that should be provided by were developed after extensive consultation with area health professionals."

Maybe so, but if so they also seem to have been developed well after the hole was dug, and the sign touting Redford's leadership was installed. But then, perhaps that's what passed for innovation in the late days of Alberta's long-ruling Conservative dynasty.

Are there any useful lessons here?

One is probably that the Infrastructure Ministry and the NDP are not wrong to take a hard line to get the project completed and the hospital operating as soon as possible without burning through any more money than necessary.

Another might be for us to think about what Kenney is really saying when he criticizes the governments of NDP Premier Notley and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for wanting to do the preparation work on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project properly before they start laying the pipe.

Who knows where that pipe might end up if we followed past Conservative project planning practices?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Andreas Wulff/Flickr

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