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Alberta's health minister needs to go

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Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney shortly after the election of the United Conservative Party government (Image: Premier of Alberta/Flickr).

Despite a lot of smoke and mirrors, Alberta's United Conservative Party government has never dispelled the queasy feeling many Albertans have that Tyler Shandro's personal business dealings render him unsuitable to serve as minister of health.

It was Shandro's personal conduct, publicly berating a neighbour who posted a critical meme about the Shandro family's ownership of a share of an insurance company that brokers services the health minister's department had cut, that initially spurred calls for his resignation or removal from the post.

But for all the opportunities for distraction provided by the COVID-19 pandemic and last month's letter from ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler saying Shandro broke no rules, the perception a conflict of interest surrounds the health minister's personal business dealings lingers.

Thursday, April 2, PressProgress reported new details of that appearance of conflict, noting the timing of the health ministry's letter to dependents of seniors advising them they were being kicked off the province’s seniors' drug plan and a post on the website of Vital Partners Inc., the company partly owned by Shandro and his wife, offering help such people find replacement private insurance coverage.

The ministry letter, a second notice, was sent to 46,000 Albertans affected by the cutback on January 27. "If you or your dependant(s) require ongoing health benefits coverage on March 1, 2020, you may consider seeking private coverage, for example through your employer or a private insurer," it said. (Emphasis added.)

In mid-December 2019, the Vital Partners website reviewed the then-upcoming changes to Alberta's Seniors Drug Plan. "If you previously qualified for the Seniors Drug Plan because your spouse is over the age of 65, your coverage will cease on March 1, 2020," it said. "If you don't have drug coverage through your employer, you may wish to seek alternative coverage," it continued, directing readers to the firm's "find-a-plan tool."

A firm in that business can be expected to be on top of coming legislative changes that might be to its advantage, of course. This would be true even if one of the owners of the company were not married to the minister making the changes.

But the optics, it should have been obvious to everyone involved, are terrible.

It's reasonable to wonder if the minister understood this on some level before his emotional outburst at the home of Dr. Mukarram Zaidi, the Calgary physician who lives down the street from the Sandros, or his warning to a member of the public who wrote a letter of protest to Vital Partners that he would sic the legislature's protective services on her if she continued to make "threats." The citizen's letter, it should be noted, contained no threats.

On Tuesday, three Calgary political science professors outlined a compelling argument why Shandro must resign.

Melanee Thomas and Daniel Voth of the University of Calgary, and Duane Bratt of Mount Royal University, wrote that Shandro's bullying approach toward members of the public made his resignation or firing a necessity.

His actions undermine the provision of good government in his ministry, they argued, which even in normal times would require his resignation under the parliamentary convention of ministerial responsibility. The global health emergency, they continued, makes the situation worse.

While shying away from the question of conflict of interest, they argued Shandro's failure to be "resilient to critical comments from members of the public" adds to his failure "to meet these basic expectations of democracy and good governance in Canada."

"The minister's reaction would be problematic under normal circumstances; it is profoundly unacceptable during a global health crisis," the three professors concluded.

Alas, there's not must respect any more for the customary belief ministers have any real responsibility for their departments. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney blew off calls for Shandro to go.

He also misrepresented the nature of the criticism directed at the health minister. "Any Albertan would understand that a husband or wife will get passionate when their spouse is being attacked or even threatened and certainly defamed," the premier said Tuesday.

The meme Zaidi reposted may have been harsh, but it was pretty obviously a fair comment. Kenney's characterization of Zaidi? Not so much.

Regardless, whatever the premier says, it's doubtful this issue will go away as long as Shandro is minister of health. If Kenney doesn't like that, he knows what he has to do.

Why does the UCP continue its fight with the doctors?

Given its change of course on Tuesday in bargaining with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, it's surprising the Kenney government is still fighting with the province's physicians, just when they're most needed to deal with the wave of COVID-19 infections now rolling over Alberta.

One can only speculate about the reasons for this secretive government's intransigence with the docs, choosing this moment to implement changes to physicians' compensation that many say will cost then 30 per cent of their income.

Alberta Medical Association president Christine Molnar called the government's determination "simply irresponsible and not in the best interests of the health care system and our patients."

My suspicion is that Alberta Conservatives, shocked and embittered by their unexpected loss to Rachel Notley's NDP in 2015, expected the province's unions to work with the Notley government, even if it made them angry. Accordingly, they're prepared to temper their revenge, or at least delay it, during the health and economic crisis facing the province.

They view physicians, by contrast, as class traitors, worthy of much deeper disrespect and punishment. In other words, they never expected the AMA to deal with the NDP as if it was what it was, a government elected by the people of Alberta.

For that misunderstanding of how the UCP thinks politics ought to work in Alberta, there will be no mercy, at least as long as Kenney is premier.

A final thought from Janet Davidson, remember her?

Readers of this blog will recall Janet Davidson, named sole administrator of Alberta Health Services by Progressive Conservative health minister Fred Horne in June 2013, during Alison Redford's chaotic premiership.

Davidson, a former RN and longtime health care consultant, was later named as Horne's deputy minister.

Recently, she published some thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it compares to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome two decades ago, which are worth pondering:

"Following the SARS pandemic, comments were made about the inability of an already maxed out system to cough up more acute and critical care beds during a crisis," she wrote on the Longwoods.com website. "Some 20 years later, I would say the problem is even worse.

"What other industry considers regularly using 100 per cent or more of capacity as being efficient? Most industries actually plan to use less than full capacity, so they are able to respond to unexpected events such as the present COVID-19 situation. Yet, in health care anything other than full occupancy is deemed inefficient. A vacant bed is actually considered bad.

"What does that say about us? I am pretty sure there will be another COVID-19 scenario in the future. Let us hope we do not continue to be victims of the old adage, 'Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'"

She's right.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

Editor's note, April 6, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited the source for the headline image as "Facebook." In fact, the photo was originally sourced from the Premier of Alberta's Flickr page. The story has been corrected.

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