Dr. David Swann

What was he thinking?

When the Alberta Legislature came that close on its first day back Monday to a desperately needed emergency debate on the parlous state of emergency room care in this province, it was as much the Liberal opposition as the nervous government caucus of Premier Ed Stelmach that scuttled it. Opposition Leader Dr. David Swann, anyway.

Swann is a physician, so he generally knows what he’s talking about when it comes to health care issues. And he’s the Opposition leader, for heaven’s sake, so he has political points to score by talking about it. So we can only shake our heads and speculate about what he got up to on Monday afternoon.

The debate was requested by New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason. Amazingly, Speaker Ken Kowalski agreed. The Wildrose Alliance was on side, and the Liberals appeared to be. At any rate, Swann told reporters early in the afternoon that he backed the idea.

Since the Opposition MLAs just happen to add up to 15, this meant Mason had the bare number of votes he needed to force the emergency debate to proceed, even if no one from the government benches had the intestinal fortitude to break ranks and say Yea.

But when the division bells rang, Swann was nowhere to be found! He was reported to be out in the hallway, talking to a reporter. Moreover, Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor was officially AWOL, driving home to Lethbridge in Alberta’s deep south.

Since the government caucus — oddly enough, actually — refused to play ball, the vote was lost and with it the opportunity for a debate on the disastrous condition of Alberta’s emergency rooms. This topic has been getting a lot of coverage since last Friday when Dr. Paul Parks, Emergency Medicine president of the Alberta Medical Association, sent a letter to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and sundry other high government officials warning that “we anticipate the potential catastrophic collapse of timely emergency care delivery in the upcoming months. There must be an intervention immediately.”

By now, needless to say, a rattled public is thoroughly engaged.

But Swann’s momentary lapse — those bells are loud, for heaven’s sake — didn’t end the strangeness Monday afternoon. Queried about where he’d gotten to, the normally dignified Opposition leader improbably told reporters that the problem was all Brian Mason’s fault! According to the Edmonton Journal, Dr. Swann informed the assembled media that the NDP leader “set me up. He could have prepared for this emergency by letting us know so we could plan our schedules and be there for the vote. … Frankly, it says to me that he has no interest in forwarding public policy, he has an interest in scoring cheap political points at my expense.”

Say what?

Mason sent out two notices Monday morning to all the usual suspects, including the Liberal caucus. As noted, Swann indicated his support for the debate as he walked into the Legislature. He was right outside while the bells rang — talking to a journalist no less! All the other Liberals (except Pastoor, of course) were in their places with appropriately grim faces — presumably secretly pleased at the hapless premier’s apparently imminent comeuppance.

So what the heck happened? Did Swann covertly not want the debate to proceed? This seems highly unlikely, as the Liberals had plenty to gain and little to lose from the debate. Did he just forget? Hard to imagine, since, face it, the reporters in the Legislative Press Gallery just aren’t that engaging. Anyway, those bells are loud enough to wake the dead — who may be piling up soon in Alberta’s emergency wards if Parks has it right.

Well, here’s a theory. Earlier in the day, Liberal MLAs were speculating to members of the public that the government would support the motion for an emergency debate because it would give the impression the beleaguered Tories were doing something. This may or may not have made sense, but the theory obviously had some currency in the Liberal caucus.

So the simple explanation is that Swann let Pastoor drive home to Lethbridge and continued to chatter with a representative of the gutter press because he was certain there would be enough votes for the debate anyway.

In the event, alas, the Conservatives apparently decided the risk of publicity about a disaster they have caused was greater than the potential for looking like they have the situation in hand. (They caused this problem, by the way, through mismanagement and a commitment to dumb market fundamentalist “solutions” that resulted in closing needed long-term care beds while continuing-care patients occupy active treatment beds in hospitals, backing the space crisis up into emergency.)

The humiliated Liberal caucus was left tied to the tracks in the face of an oncoming Tory locomotive — although it was probably the little orange NDP caboose that really hurt when it went over.

Whatever the reason, Swann’s stumble Monday was a blunder worthy of a member of Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet, if not quite a Swann song.

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

David J. Climenhaga

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...