Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government reversed course on a major health policy yesterday — backing away from a controversial drug plan for seniors that would have tied drug costs to income.

When the plan was announced in December 2008, the government tried to sell it as a cost-saver for most seniors, but seniors’ advocates hated it on sight and quickly turned it into a political hot potato. Alberta’s aggressive Friends of Medicare group was set to launch a high-profile campaign against the scheme over the Easter long weekend.

Of course, there’s something to be said about having the grace to admit you were wrong, and the intelligence to change course accordingly. This goes for governments as well as people. But yesterday’s drug plan announcement was this government’s tenth significant policy reversal so far in 2010. Eight of them took place in March.

By any standard, the Alberta government’s recent record for changing direction — flip-flopping in the argot of politics — is remarkable. It has gone in three months from graceful, to astonishing, to bizarre.

One hesitates to say this, because most of the flip-flops changed a bad position to a slightly better one. Given this track record, one would hate to discourage this trend. Still, this is starting to look like a government that doesn’t know its own mind, let alone have a clue how to communicate its strategy to its officials.

In fairness, seven of these reversals involve health policy — an area where Ron Liepert, an unpopular minister often compared to a bull in a china shop, was replaced in January as health minister by Gene Zwozdesky, a much smoother political operator.

Here are the ten flip-flops:

March 31A terse press release announces that the new drug plan, which was to have gone into effect July 1, will be delayed “to address necessary legislative and regulatory changes.” The old plan remains in effect.

March 25 — New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley reveals a government official had told foster parents of special needs children of a plan to cut their funding. Children and Youth Services Minister Yvonne Fritz immediately reverses the decision, and the official is made to walk the plank.

March 21 — Uniformed Correctional Peace Officers at the Edmonton Remand Centre hold a two-hour information picket to protest a plan by the Solicitor General Department to save money by halting overnight admissions of inmates at remand centres throughout Alberta. Appalled police express strong support. Solicitor General Frank Oberle drops the policy before the protest ends.

March 17 — Zwozdesky overrules a decision by Alberta Health Services to centralize Alberta’s ambulance dispatch systems. “There are a lot of concerns in rural Alberta,” the minister explains.

March 12 — Stelmach backs down under pressure from the energy industry and scraps short-lived and modest increases to Alberta’s energy royalties. Arguably this is the biggest flip-flop of them all, and the only one in which policy moved from bad to worse.

March 9 — The premier publicly calls a new Calgary cancer centre “a priority” for the government, overruling Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, who the day before had told media the facility wouldn’t be on his list of priority capital projects.

March 9 — The same day, Zwozdesky publicly scuttles Duckett’s plan, announced in an AHS blog the week before, to fund public health facilities using a “pay for performance” scheme pioneered in other countries.

Feb. 9 — The provincial Budget Speech read by Finance Minister Ted Morton dramatically reverses direction on health, raising spending by almost 17 per cent. The budget projects a record $4.7-billion deficit. Gritting his teeth, Morton tells the Legislature the increases “strike the right balance between spending too much and spending too little.”

Jan. 18 — After weeks of protests by physicians, police, unions and members of the general public, Alberta Health Services reluctantly announces it will keep open 146 of the 246 acute-care psychiatric beds it had planned to close at the Alberta Hospital Edmonton psychiatric facility. The decision was recommended by a committee headed by a Conservative MLA — but the recommendation amounted to an order.

Jan. 21 — Zwozdesky orders Duckett to drop his plan to close 300 acute care beds in Edmonton and Calgary over three years while the government figures out what to do next. The results of their figuring show up in the Feb. 9 provincial budget.

This kind of fickleness is unheard of among Canadian governments at any level. It hard to imagine such flip-flops won’t soon become a major concern to voters.

Even the Conservatives’ most loyal voters must be wondering about this, never mind supporters of established opposition parties and the large numbers of conservative electors considering switching their votes to the Wildrose Alliance.

The potential impact does not bode well for the Stelmach government.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...