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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro hesitates over plan to pull plug on medical 'superlab'

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro with Premier Jason Kenney at cabinet swearing-In ceremony. Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

When it opted to build a $590-million "superlab" in Edmonton, Alberta's former NDP government was relying on sound advice from the Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA), which recommended medical lab services be consolidated under "a single public sector platform."

But never mind the HQCA was set up under legislation created by a previous Conservative government to get itself out of a political jam caused by the never-ending crisis in health care that's been the hallmark of Conservative rule in this province since Peter Lougheed left office in 1985.

That certainly didn't stop Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party, which is now the government of Alberta, from accusing the NDP for basing its decision on "ideology." This was blatant nonsense, of course -- and ironic too, since it is the conservative movement that is now dominated by rigid economic dogma, much of it shown repeatedly not to work very well, in Canada and around the world.

So throughout the recent Alberta election campaign, Kenney and the UCP vowed regularly to kill the superlab project if they won the election. Characteristically, the NDP hid its light under a bushel and never really responded effectively to the constant UCP talking points about "risky ideological experiments" and the like.

The UCP's opposition to the the superlab may have been driven in part by bitterness that the NDP's capable health minister, Sarah Hoffman, had quickly dumped a Tory scheme to privatize the whole operation for $3 billion over 15 years to an Australian corporation no one had ever heard of and which had no history of doing business in Alberta. Talk about a risky ideological experiment!

Regardless, when a UCP majority was elected on April 16, work stopped at the superlab site before the new government had even been sworn in.

Thus it was mildly surprising to hear Health Minister Tyler Shandro sounding a bit like one of the grownups yesterday and expressing reservations about the UCP's knee-jerk ideological reaction. He even sounded like he might consider it risky, telling reporters at the legislature that the government has only "paused" construction and that it's now "a matter of doing due diligence and find out what the consequences will be when looking into being able to cancel that."

Is he saying Kenney had no idea what the consequences would be when he made his risky ideological promise? Presumably, yes, although Shandro can be forgiven if he doesn't want to phrase it exactly that way.

It presumably remains likely the government -- deeply committed to its ideology of privatization, which is known to increase costs and remove public accountability -- will pull the plug on the project.

But since the UCP will probably be looking for a private "partner" to run it, they may now be seeking ways to keep construction moving so our public investment can be transferred for a song to their private sector friends. Certainly, something will have to happen if medical lab services are going to keep on being delivered to a population that continues to grow. We'll probably have to wait a little to see if that's what's going on.

Kenney himself, one suspects, doesn't really care. He's already busy campaigning for his next job, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada as soon as Andrew Scheer manages the difficult task of losing this fall's election to the rudderless Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals.

After that, the new Alberta premier will move right on to campaigning for the next job he covets, that of prime minister of Canada.

So as long as Kenney remains at the helm, the UCP will advocate the right policies and make the right talking points to keep his generous donors and supporters sweet -- including major media, think-tanks and corporations that have the ability to wiggle around election financing laws.

In the event something goes wrong, someone else will be left to wear the egg on their bespoke suits and sort out the mess long after Premier Kenney has left for pastures that are greener in every way except the one that matters.

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 Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

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