AHS CEO Stephen Duckett

Albertans with a stake in health care continue to line up to take potshots at Stephen Duckett, the brusque Australian economist hired by the Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach in the spring of 2009 to shake up Alberta’s health system and lead it into a new, heavily privatized era.

We’re not talking about the usual suspects from the trade unions and social democratic political parties here, either.

The latest in this long parade of influential Albertans to bash Duckett and embarrass Stelmach’s accident-prone government is Dr. Lloyd Maybaum, president-elect of the Calgary and Area Physicians Association. This is a group that includes among its officers such well-connected Tories as Dr. Grant Hill, the paleoconservative former Member of Parliament for Macleod.

In the May edition of Vital Signs, the group’s magazine, Maybaum slams Duckett’s leadership as the cause of “the devastating morale problems we currently face” at Alberta Health Services, the massive “superboard” created by Stelmach’s government in May 2008 to replace the province’s nine regional health authorities.

Describing Duckett’s performance explaining the health board’s dismal ratings in a province-wide employee engagement survey during an April 13 staff meeting at the Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary, Maybaum wrote: “As I numbly stood there in shocked disbelief watching him and listening to him glibly reply to questions and comments I came to one stark conclusion: the single greatest liability for AHS is Dr. Stephen Duckett.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Indeed, shaking up health care and appointing the likes of Duckett as CEO of AHS must’ve seemed like a great idea at the time!

At any rate, this or something like it seems to have been Stelmach’s idea when he appointed Ron Liepert as his health minister back in 2008. Liepert was yet another tough-talking, right-wing, privatizing gunslinger in the mould of Mike Harris, the Ontario premier who wreaked havoc in that province through the 1990s.

That, or something like it, also seems to have been Liepert’s idea when he hired Duckett, the short-tempered and sharp-tongued PhD from Australia, to make it all happen. The pair were simpatico, birds of a feather.

Who, Stelmach must have thought, could hope to stop a pair of Masters of the Universe like these guys? With only one health board, why, all local resistance would be futile. Finally he’d succeed where even the politically masterful premier Ralph Klein had failed when he tried to cook up his doomed “Third Way” health care restructuring scheme back in 2005.

Alas for Stelmach, the whole plan was a train wreck from the get-go. With their bull-headed lack of diplomacy and radical plans, not to mention enormous cost overruns at the new health board, the inimitable team of Liepert and Duckett managed to arouse even Alberta’s complacent public into a fury at the deteriorating state of health care in their province.

With public opinion polls heading south and his caucus in a state of advanced panic — those that hadn’t already packed up and crossed the floor to join the upstart Wildrose Alliance Party, anyway — Stelmach finally folded his cards at the start of this year and shipped Liepert off to the Energy Minister’s Office, where he could presumably do less harm.

Liepert was replaced as health minister by the smooth-talking and diplomatic Gene Zwozdesky, who has done a lot to allay the Alberta public’s concerns about whatever Alberta Health Services is likely to get up to next. He’s done this in part by overturning a long list of unpopular policy decisions made by Duckett.

But Duckett, as Maybaum’s recent comments show, continues to act as a lightning rod for Albertans of all stripes worried about the state of public health care. Moreover, he continues to attract unwelcome negative coverage to the government in the mainstream media.

“Those I spoke to that attended the debacle on April 13th felt invalidated and unheard,” wrote Maybaum. With each reply another blow was delivered to the morale of the assembled staff. He is tone deaf to the cries and concerns of the gathered assembly of health care experts — nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, psychologists, recreational therapists, technicians, porters and, yes, physicians. His only concern apparently to prove himself correct.”

Well, yes, as those of us who have met the man can attest, that’s his style.

Maybaum concludes that what is needed is “a leader that inspires us and lifts us from our present morass of low morale. … Would that individual please step forward — we desperately need an intervention.”

Premier Stelmach really should pay attention. If he doesn’t intervene, the voters may!

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...