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Kenney's 'Public Health Guarantee' not worth much, but may be good enough for many voters

UCP Leader Jason Kenney, assiduously signing stuff (Photo: Twitter).

No one ever said Jason Kenney isn't a shrewd politician who knows how to run a campaign, so give the man some credit for his clever effort yesterday to look strong on a weak file for his party and make the NDP look a little weaker on its strongest.

The United Conservative Party leader looked for all the world the Canadian Taxpayers Federation agitator he used to be as he bent over to sign a "Public Health Guarantee" on a Coroplast sign promising to maintain health-care funding and "a universally accessible, publicly funded health-care system."

One problem with Kenney's guarantees, of course, is that they aren't really worth the plastic sheet they're printed on, as scores of observers were soon pointing out on Twitter.

Who can forget the "Grassroots Guarantee" Kenney signed on another piece of plastic last year? He tossed it over the side the instant party members passed a potentially politically embarrassing policy motion on Gay-Straight Alliances at a UCP policy conference in Red Deer last May.

"I've always been clear that as leader I will consult broadly with Albertans outside of our party to develop a common-sense, mainstream platform to reignite our economy," Kenney said piously at the time, never mind that the motion had been passed by nearly 60 per cent of the voters at the convention.

None of this is now likely to concern the UCP's rank-and-file voters, who will feel reassured by Kenney's latest promise and listen no more to what people like Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman say.

Which brings us to another problem with Kenney's guarantees. It's not always clear what he actually has in mind. Here's Hoffman, from a series of tweets in response to the UCP pledge yesterday:

"Today, he claimed that he would follow through on the UCP's founding convention resolution and that would somehow protect public health care. There's just one problem … that resolution talks about moving to 'privately delivered health services where cost-effective' and to 'give Albertans the choice of privately funded, privately delivered health-care services.' It's clear that with Kenney's plan your quality of health care will depend on how deep your pockets are. This is two-tier, American-style health care."

Of course, Kenney's own experience with private health care may be a positive one. After all, the man apparently lived quite happily in the basement of a private long-term care facility in Calgary!

In addition to committed UCP supporters, an important question is how many undecided voters will be reassured by Kenney's pledge as well. Probably plenty, if they're not paying close attention.

In addition, in light of recent events in Ottawa, it seems unlikely many Conservative supporters will be swayed by Premier Rachel Notley's efforts to look tough on the pipeline file, traditionally seen as a Conservative strength, regardless of objective reality.

If you're unhappy with this assessment, I'm sorry. But it's the way electoral politics work in this province, and have for generations, so yesterday's posturing should come as a surprise to no one.

Answering questions from reporters yesterday, Kenney mused about the benefits of privatization. To some of us, that might undermine the credibility of his public health-care promise. But in some parts of Alberta -- objective reality notwithstanding -- it could create as many friends as enemies to state that "choice and competition can help get better results at lower cost." Of course, when it comes to health care and other essential public services, this is only really true in Ayn Rand novels.

Praising past privatization efforts in Saskatchewan, Kenney claimed that when that province "invited private surgical clinics to bid into the public system to perform surgeries on behalf of the public system" big bucks were saved.

Here in Alberta, of course, we have some experience with that too, during the years of Ralph Klein's premiership when some hospitals were blown to smithereens and a couple of others were sold off to friends of the Conservative government for a song so they could run private surgical clinics that were supposed to save us loads of dough.

Alert readers will recall how, when one of those private clinics doing business in a former public hospital went broke in 2010, the taxpayers of Alberta ended up holding the bag for the Conservatives' ideological dogma and Alberta Health Services got stuck with the job of ensuring that, somehow, the essential hip and knee surgeries it had been hired to perform continued to be available.

That cost a few bucks. But, as they say, it's ancient history now. It's hard to imagine very many Albertans remember the sad story of Networc Health and the Health Resources Centre any more. The ideological fundamentalism that characterized the Klein PCs has only gotten worse and less tethered to reality in Conservative circles in the years since.

So if we elect a UCP government, we'll likely have to learn that lesson all over again and every day in health care will be Groundhog Day.

Kenney admitted to a reporter that his health-care funding pledge also doesn't include increases for inflation or population, so this in effect means he is still proposing cuts to the system. But he can point to the fact the NDP has spent a lot of time and energy "bending the cost curve," as we say nowadays, to assuage this province's mania for austerity and balanced budgets.

The UCP leader promised to commission a "comprehensive performance review of Alberta Health Services" within 30 days of taking office. The goal, he claimed, would be "to reallocate capital significantly away from administration, to delivery of front-line services." This might not be a bad idea if the review were done by someone who didn't see the potential for profit in the UCP's ideological nostrums. That would rule out most of the world's corporate consultants, though.

Interestingly, in his praise for things done in Saskatchewan, and in some cases the NDP officials who did them, Kenney didn't mention one key health-care policy enacted in that province that really did save a lot of money. To wit: closing rural hospitals.

Yes, he lauded former New Democrat finance minister Janice MacKinnon by name for her acceptance of private clinics, but he failed to mention that her signature policy as a member of premier Roy Romanow's cabinet in 1993 was closing 52 small rural hospitals throughout the province.

That saved money, alright. It also infuriated rural Saskatchewan, which has never forgiven the NDP and remains solid Saskatchewan Party territory as a result.

That political reality hasn't stopped MacKinnon from preaching to the Alberta NDP about how they should implement similar deficit-fighting measures here, which must make her the kind of Dipper Kenney can love.

Fortunately for Alberta, the real meaning of that cruel lesson wasn't lost on Alberta's New Democrats, and they ignored her lousy advice.

But what about Kenney? Did he miss that lesson … or did he absorb it? It's too soon to say, but it's something to think about.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Twitter

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