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Cookiegate: If Alberta Heath Services supremo is doomed, the cookie did it!

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Was "Cookiegate" the straw that broke the camel’s back, ending Stephen Duckett's unhappy tenure as the president and CEO of Alberta Health Services?

Later this morning we will know for sure, but it certainly looks that way. With Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach publicly grumbling about how Duckett's bizarre television performance last Friday has become a serious distraction from fixing the ailing health care system and the Alberta Health Services Board meeting in secret conclave last night and this morning to figure out what to do about it, it certainly seems as if Duckett's Canadian career is hanging by a thread.

"Cookiegate," of course, refers to Duckett's contemptuous refusal to talk to several Edmonton-area radio and television reporters while munching what appeared to be a chocolate-chip confection and repeatedly screeching, "I'm eating my cookie! Can't you see I'm eating my cookie?"

Duckett obviously thought this was a hilariously funny way to tell the local media to bug off. A video clip of the entire disgraceful performance was posted to YouTube.com and went viral, with close to 130,000 views by midnight last night.

In a way, it would be odd if such a trivial matter were to precipitate the return to Australia of the crusty chief executive, imported to Alberta with great fanfare in 2009 by former health minister Ron Liepert to run the province’s then-new health care "superboard."

In another way, it would be entirely appropriate, given Duckett's obvious contempt for most players in Alberta’s troubled health care system.

Now, Dr. Duckett, as he was often known -- a PhD economist, not a physician -- acted like this almost from Day 1. This was the way he frequently dealt with union leaders, media, ordinary Albertans who had their doubts about policies and changes he pushed, or anyone else he viewed as getting in his way.

Of course, there was a day when that didn’t much matter to the Alberta government. This was especially true when the abrasive and unpopular Liepert was minister. But over time the effect was to alienate many health professionals who would have worked with him to improve the system. It also turned many voters against Stelmach just as credible new political challengers were emerging.

Last year, when Albertans in large numbers began to let their Conservative MLAs know they were very unhappy about the state of the health care system, the government’s attitude improved. Stelmach replaced Liepert with Gene Zwozdesky, a minister whose approach was to go slow and soothe Albertans' fears. But Duckett's ideas and confrontational style often frustrated the minister’s best efforts.

Last week, Zwozdesky was struggling to overcome the latest unexpected health crisis. With emergency wards in chaos, even the government’s parliamentary assistant for health -- Edmonton emergency room physician Raj Sherman, the only doctor in the Conservative caucus -- broke with the government to publicly tear a strip off AHS for its appalling performance. (On Monday, Sherman would be kicked out of the caucus for his efforts.) Public attitudes were moving quickly from serious concern to a conviction the health system is falling apart.

At that delicate moment, Duckett blundered onto the stage with a ridiculous performance straight out of a Monty Python skit.

Called on the carpet by Zwozdesky, Duckett published a half-hearted apology on his official blog. "On Nov. 19, we had a meeting of clinical and operational leaders to develop new protocols to reduce Emergency Department wait times. The meeting made great progress," he wrote. "That success has to some extent been overshadowed by my poor responses to the media afterwards, which I deeply regret and for which I apologize unreservedly."

To some extent indeed! Not satisfied to eat a portion of crow, as presumably instructed, he glancingly blamed his public relations people -- you see, they’d decided earlier to have a physician be the spokesperson that day. Well, Duckett is the CEO, and as such he is the spokesperson, whether or not he happens to be eating a cookie.

Regardless of that blunder, the tactless Duckett was always the wrong man for a job that requires diplomacy and sensitivity. He is not personally responsible for the entire mess in which Alberta's health system now finds itself, but his ability to lead it out of the crisis was clearly compromised.

That, in itself, should have been enough for Stelmach to get rid of the man. But it was when he became a serious political liability to Stelmach's shaky government that his fate appears to have been sealed. More than anything, it was Cookiegate that unexpectedly accomplished that goal.

We'll know later today for sure, but it appears very much as if the time has come for Stephen Duckett to return to Australia.

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

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