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Blogging with Mr. Duckett: Stand by for mainstream media whinging, Doc!

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Alberta's best-read blogger, if the unique-visits stats are to be believed, isn't some political wonk like Daveberta, Ken Chapman or even Yours Truly.

It's Stephen Duckett -- Doctor Stephen Duckett -- the PhD economist imported from Australia in 2008 by Ron Liepert, Alberta's former minister of health and resident political train wreck, to reform, restructure, reinvent and re-whatever Alberta's public health care system.

Now, Liepert was commonly seen to be an ideological right-wing nut committed to the idea of privatizing health care as much and as quickly as could be managed while the federal Conservative government still had a minority and hence couldn't trash the Canada Health Act. So, from Day 1, as Liepert's choice for president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, Duckett had a major public perception problem to overcome.

That, presumably, was the principal reason for Duckett's blog, which from the start was rife with enough annoying Australianisms to persuade most observers that he actually wrote it himself. (Alas, only employees of Alberta Health Services, the province-wide health "board" set up by Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives shortly before Duckett's appointment, may have their comments published on the blog.)

Now, notwithstanding their tendency to elect generation after generation of Conservative governments, Albertans honour and defend their public health care system with as much reverence and vigour as other Canadians. So they were not hesitant to speak up when they suspected Duckett of trying to take their beloved system in a private, for-profit sort of direction.

For his part, Duckett soon proved to be prickly and dismissive of his opponents in person and in print. He went so far in his blog as to accuse us Albertans of "continuing xenophobia associated with my appointment" when someone, another blogger presumably, suggested the job should have gone to a Canadian.

In person, I can attest, he dismisses opposition to his ideas as "whinging," a disdainful Australianism that means a whining complaint.

In fairness, Duckett's $744,000-a-year job (2010 bonuses included) has become more difficult with the replacement by the premier of Liepert in January 2010 with Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who seems to be out of tune both with Duckett's policy prescriptions and his personal style.

Regardless, Duckett appears to be particularly annoyed by criticism in print, as his latest blog post -- described by one observer as "bizarre" -- makes clear. Under the heading "A Personal Issue," Duckett takes issue with a story that appeared in the Edmonton Journal almost a year ago.

"The article was based on a 'quote' from a nursing academic: 'Stephen Duckett is well known for his time in Australia for being at loggerheads with nursing groups and professional therapists,'" Duckett wrote. "I have a thick skin but this statement particularly annoyed me."

Now, the metaphorical thickness of Duckett's skin actually is a matter of considerable interpretation. Based on what he has written and what he has said to me personally, it seems fair to describe him as thin-skinned. However, he is entitled to his views, and he has the forum in which to express them, his blog.

His narrative continues: "It was not true, it was highly damaging to my reputation and it has no foundation in fact. Unlike many of the other criticisms of me or my decisions, which generally are expressed as opinions which are difficult to challenge, this one was phrased as an assertion of fact. I immediately approached the Journal requesting an apology and the immediate (verbal) response was that 'the Journal doesn't apologize.' Since then I have engaged in extensive correspondence with the Journal with the aim of getting an apology or retraction."

The blog post, which is worth reading in its entirety, describes at length Duckett's unsuccessful efforts to get satisfaction from the Edmonton Journal and the Alberta Press Council, as well as comments and reports he feels treated him more fairly. He noted, for example, that Heather Smith, President of the United Nurses of Alberta, "to her credit, reported that I had a good reputation with nurses in Australia."

Readers may be interested to learn that, shortly after Duckett's appointment, I spoke to several trade unionists in Australia about his reputation with unionized working people. No one had anything to say about him, good or ill, because no one I talked to had ever heard of the man.

Regardless, it is interesting that the CEO of Alberta Health Services saw fit to detail his unhappiness with Edmonton's largest newspaper in such a public fashion in his official blog.

Since it is nearly a year since the material Duckett complains of was published, readers are entitled to ask, Why now? Perhaps we can look forward to future installments of this saga in his blog to inform us on this point.

At any rate, in my view society always benefits when the mainstream media is held to account for its actions, if only by us bloggers. So, in this regard, Duckett has made a useful contribution to public discourse in Alberta, whether or not his lengthy comments made sense from a public relations perspective.

Now, like the rest of us bloggers, I suppose he will have to put up with the whinging that inevitably issues from certain mainstream media reporters, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, whenever their journal is assailed in print.

Welcome to the club, Mr. Duckett!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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