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What on earth sparked Wildrose leader's awkward defence of failing clinic?

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Danielle Smith

They say that Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith keeps photos of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Ted Byfield in her office … used to, anyway.

The Iron Lady, the Great Communicator and Fierce Old Ted. The latter was a fundamentalist of both the religious and market persuasions, plus an educational eccentric, who nevertheless was for many years one of Western Canada's more entertaining opinionators.

Despite his goofy views, Byfield always understood that a great column requires a beginning, a middle, an end, a fiercely argued thesis and no more than 800 words. One thing he never did in his writing days, though, was to make people laugh, intentionally anyway.

So it's interesting to ponder which of these muses Smith was listening to when she decided to hasten to the defence of that corporate shipwreck, Networc Health Inc. of Calgary, and its bankrupt private surgical clinic.

As the Alberta political party farthest to the right and most deeply committed to privatizing the most public-sector activities the soonest, the Wildrose Alliance has a major problem with the straits in which Networc finds itself.

The company's private, for-profit Health Resource Centre surgical clinic went broke after making an ill-considered investment in the hope of getting more contracts from the Alberta government's province-wide health superboard. That, in turn, burned Alberta Health Services and left it fearful it would be unable to deliver scheduled hip and knee surgeries in Calgary. Thereupon AHS expended considerable sums of public money to pay a receiver to keep the facility afloat while they figured out what to do next.

In other words, Networc and its tribulations are quickly turning into a very public spectacle clearly illustrating why privatized, contracted-out health care -- among the idées fixe of the Wildrose Alliance -- is a really dumb idea.

Enter Smith with her call for Premier Ed Stelmach and his Conservative government to bail out Networc. She insisted unconvincingly that the company's problems were entirely the fault of the AHS and the government, and that what she was proposing was something other than a bailout. But whatever it is, this quacking, honking fowl is not the graceful swan Smith says it is.

Up to now, the Wildrose Alliance has played things pretty shrewdly, so this latest move is hard to fathom. Maybe it’s just a Hail-Mary pass to toss an embarrassing situation out of sight.

Possibly it's a misguided attempt to woo Calgary voters by suggesting the Alliance's power base is somehow being shortchanged by Alberta Health Services, which the party likes to refer to as "Edmonton dominated." Of course, while the AHS corporate offices are in Edmonton, its executive is dominated by people from … uh, the former Calgary Health Region. In other words, it would be fairer to refer to the provincial health superboard as "Calgary influenced."

Regardless of that quibble, yesterday Smith was back in the pages of the Calgary Herald -- the newspaper that once nurtured her and her crackpot economic dogma -- blaming everyone but Networc for Networc's troubles. She even assailed left wingers, for heaven’s sake -- as if they had any power in Alberta -- for being among the company’s tormentors.

Who’s next? Proof readers, irresponsibly irritated by the troubled corporation’s missing K?

Now, despite Smith's claim in her story that the Calgary Health Region reneged on a commitment to increase the number of surgeries performed by the Health Resources Centre, thereby causing the company's difficulties, the record seems to suggest otherwise.

Leastways, back on Sept. 9, 2009, Networc CEO Bernie Simpson told the late Michelle Lang of the Herald that "we're pretty much at capacity for our (operating rooms) here today. … It just makes business sense to try to continue to grow." The story went on: "While Simpson said there haven't been any negotiations to expand the company's surgical contract with the provincial superboard, he said the clinic is 'always hoping and aspiring to do more work.'" (Emphasis added.)

Well, there you have it. Hoping and aspiring.

Aside from prompting fits of giggles among Smith's readers, this contretemps suggests the Wildrose leader is finally running afoul of what many Alberta political observers long suspected could become her Achilles heel. To wit: the fact she is an ideologue, and not, despite her considerable charm, a consensus politician.

If true, this leads one to suspect her inspiration for this clanger was Byfield -- father of the missing Link, Alberta's putative "Senator in Waiting."

Despite their many efforts and several re-branding efforts, neither Byfield, père ou fils, could make a success of Alberta Report, their kooky monthly panegyric to the glories of the market. Alas, it seemed there was no market for that stuff.

Smith could find herself in similar difficulties if she frightens enough Albertans by obstinately insisting that "if we want to fix our public health system, we need many more HRCs, not less."

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

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