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Health Minister Jane Philpott should be judged on her work, not 'gotcha' politics

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Jane Philpott is exactly the kind of citizen we should want in Parliament: a doctor of medicine, with a master's degree in public health; doctored in Niger, one of the world's very poorest countries, for a full decade; chief of the department of family medicine at her hospital; central to a Canada-Ethiopia collaboration to develop a training program for family medicine in Ethiopia.

Beyond any formal credentials, she is known among all who work or deal with her for her decency, integrity and deep devotion to her community. She is what the "honourable" in "The Honourable Member" should mean.

The only serious criticism I have of Dr. Philpott is that she's a Liberal, but no one is perfect. I did try my best to tempt her with a sweeter socialist alternative. But the simple fact was that she had found the party where her liberal/conservative instincts are most at home, and nothing I could say would shake her.

She won her seat, then before she could find the washrooms in Parliament, she was named Minister of Health, a formidable responsibility. She's barely been out of the headlines ever since, having to cope with a myriad of impossibly controversial subjects, any one of which might wreck an ordinary career.

But politics is an unforgiving game, and Dr. Philpott quickly realized she couldn't please everyone -- even me. I admired the way she handled the hazards of legalizing grass, doctor-assisted suicide, better health for Indigenous people, better home-care services, and everything else under the sun -- even though I didn't always agree with her cautious positions. But turn on the TV, and there's Dr. Jane being thoughtful and sensible on one or another of her vexing files.

I've also been openly critical of her. I wrote recently in this space of the great frustration felt by Kathleen Ruff, Canada's leading asbestos critic, in trying to get the Trudeau government to fully ban asbestos from Canada -- a no-brainer, you'd think. Or even to be interested in the issue. She repeatedly contacted both Dr. Philpott's office and the Minister of the Environment. Their responses, she found, added up to a "lack of transparency, lack of democracy and lack of respect... in trying to communicate with the government, which is the opposite to what Prime Minister Trudeau promised."

And the opposite of what we expected from Jane Philpott.

But this month something quite wonderful changed, as Kathleen Ruff has now enthusiastically reported on her website RightOnCanada. She was "extremely encouraged" to learn that Jane Philpott is actively involved with her cabinet colleagues in setting a new policy on asbestos for Canada.

"I was glad to receive a phone call from a policy adviser for Minister Philpott and had a constructive and positive dialogue. I am extremely hopeful that in the next session of Parliament the government will announce its plans to ban asbestos, take measures to protect Canadians from asbestos harm and play a leadership role at the UN in support of the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention."

This is a very big deal after a decade of irresponsibility by the Harper government (including its well-known doctor, Kellie Leitch), and I, too, happily congratulate Dr. Philpott for living up to expectations.

But of course, as the entire world now knows, she recently made a mistake that reflected poor judgment on the part of her office. She used a limo operated by a political supporter whose hourly charge was excessive, and she paid to use the business-class lounge at the airport. Limo-gate!

Dr. Philpott has now apologized about 2,500 times for these indiscretions, but insists she never knowingly did anything wrong, and I believe her. She did not sacrifice her thriving medical career to be driven around in nice cars. Shouldn't she be judged on the big issues, not gotcha politics?

She probably did think that given her workload she was entitled to comfortable transportation when travelling back and forth across the frenetic Greater Toronto Area, and I agree. It's no big deal. The price was just wrong.

As for those airport lounges, they're pleasant and convenient, luxurious only compared to the crummy waiting areas most travellers are forced to use. And they allow you to work productively while awaiting your flight. Does anyone doubt how hard the Minister of Health works?

With all the contrived indignation they could muster, opposition critics were swift to leap down her throat, automatic media attention being guaranteed. Canadian Press now immortalizes the entire issue as an "expensive mistake," referring to "the thousands" Philpott spent "to be chauffeured around in a luxury vehicle owned by a Liberal volunteer." The actual figure seems to be about $6,500. This says more about Ottawa's obnoxious political culture than it does about our Minister of Health.

Jane Philpott, a serious conscientious minister, made a small mistake, has repeatedly debased herself in public acknowledging it, and just wants to get back to her many complex files. She candidly admits our vaunted health system does not live up to the praise we lavish on it and that it must do better. How about we let her try?

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics. This column was first published in The Globe and Mail.

Photo: Dave Kalmbach/Wikimedia Commons

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