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NDP governments' approaches to health-care funding demonstrate fiscal prudence, new study says

Dr. Trevor Harrison, director of the Parkland Institute and co-author of Alberta in Context, Health Care Under NDP Governments (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Who knew? The facts don't support the myth that New Democratic Party governments always try to break the bank with health-care spending!

Just as NDP governments have a better fiscal record than all other Canadian political parties that have formed governments, a new study by the Edmonton-based Parkland Institute released yesterday shows that when compared to Liberal, Conservative and conservative-allied governments, provincial NDP governments since the 1990s have approached financing public health care with an emphasis on fiscal prudence.

"Perhaps due to the precarious financial situations many of them faced when elected -- and to the chagrin of many of the party's base supporters -- NDP governments have largely been content to hold the line on health care, rather than introduce sweeping changes," observed the study's co-author, Parkland Director Dr. Trevor Harrison in a statement accompanying the release of Alberta in Context, Health Care Under NDP Governments.

Of course, stating the opposite of both realities is a hardy perennial of conservative political propaganda in Canada, especially in the run-up to elections in which the NDP are competitive. These claims have been repeated as fact so often that huge numbers of Canadians simply assume they are true, and frankly disbelieve anyone who says otherwise.

The Parkland examination of health spending in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia found that spending on health care as a percentage of GDP did tend to increase under NDP governments. However, while NDP governments defended public spending on health care, they didn't greatly expand it after the early 1990s.

Moreover, the report found that the portion of spending on public health care remained the highest and steadiest in the western provinces regardless of whether the New Democrats, Liberals or conservatives were in power.

Sadly, the report indicates that after the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all five NDP governments adopted many neoliberal economic nostrums and fiscal policies. While the Parkland study deals with health policy, this is true in other areas as well.

As is well understood, neoliberal governments try to cut public spending on health care to produce service cuts, allowing them in turn to justify privatization as a "solution" to a problem of their own creation. As a matter of practical economics, neoliberalism has been a failure, not delivering on its promises of the same level of care for less money. As an ideology, though, it has arguably been a success despite its repeated failure to deliver.

"Having all but abandoned the notion of increasing state revenues through direct ownership or Crown corporations, and later agreeing to lower corporate and individual taxes, NDP governments often found themselves trying to square the fiscal circle of meeting public needs and demands with dwindling revenues, while also trying to hold true to social democratic principles," concludes the Parkland report, which was co-authored by Dr. Rebecca Graff-McRae, Larissa Stendie, and Ian Hussey, Parkland's research manager.

Harrison concluded: "Perhaps of particular interest in Alberta today, we found that second-term NDP governments have historically tended to focus and spend more on health care than they did in the first term, and health-care spending by incoming governments after the end of an NDP mandate tended to decrease or stagnate."

As for the better fiscal record of NDP governments compared with other political parties, that is hardly news. It demonstrated convincingly in a 2011 analysis by economist Toby Sanger, executive director of Canadians for Tax Fairness, but seldom reported by mainstream media.

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: David J. Climenhaga

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