Former Alberta Health Services Chair Ken Hughes

As the beloved Scottish poet Rabbie Burns so famously observed, “the best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

The best-laid plans o’ mice, of course, are usually wrecked by people with traps. But those of men often go awry because of what might be termed an over-exuberance of democracy.

Consider the sad case of Alberta’s newest unemployed person, Ken Hughes, who on Dec. 28 last year announced he was stepping down as the first and only chair of Alberta’s giant public health-care board, known nowadays as Alberta Health Services.

He didn’t make the other announcement official until a few days later — but it was so obvious at the time that even the tame stenographers of Alberta’s mainstream media included it in their reports of his resignation: Hughes was quitting so that he could seek the Progressive Conservative nomination in the riding of Calgary-West.

From there, it was assumed, he would be elected MLA with ease, since the riding has a reputation as one of the most easily winnable in the province for Progressive Conservative candidates. After all, since 2004, it’s been held by Finance Minister Ron Liepert, the perennial bull in Alberta’s political china shop until he announced his plan to resign. The federal riding of the same name, which occupies much of the same real estate, is home to the execrable Rob Anders, best known for calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

After that, it seemed likely, Hughes would take his appointed seat in the legislature in Edmonton, whence he would be welcomed into Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet, quite possibly as health minister.

Alas, just as Robert Burns warned us might happen, yesterday afternoon Hughes’s plans went spectacularly awry and his sure-thing ascent to cabinet became dust in his mouth. After a close fought race, to the utter astonishment of the Alberta political cognoscenti, Hughes was edged out on the third ballot by former Calgary-McCall MLA Shiraz Shariff, who doesn’t even live in the riding.

Whoopsie-doopsie all ’round! Back in the 2008 election, Shariff was narrowly defeated in Calgary-McCall by Liberal Darshan Kang, and later unsuccessfully claimed in court there had been election irregularities.

Apparently the PC electors of Calgary West were not nearly as impressed as the premier with Hughes’s accomplishments as an insurance salesman, as the undistinguished Member of Parliament for Macleod and as chair of the shambolic behemoth that is Alberta Health Services.

Indeed, while the Tory story as told by Health Minister Fred Horne in the official government news release announcing Hughes’s resignation is that “Ken’s leadership helped AHS to deliver solid results, including over $660 million in administrative savings that has since been reinvested in patient care,” there’s precious little evidence any money has actually been saved.

Moreover, it is simply impossible to claim health care operates more efficiently in Alberta under AHS than it did before the huge agency was created in 2008 to replace nine health regions — a move almost universally believed to have been a politically motivated strategy by the government of former premier Ed Stelmach to curb the burgeoning power of the Calgary Health Region.

Indeed, health care in Alberta seems to the public to have been in an enduring state of crisis almost from the day AHS was created.

No one knows what former AHS CEO Stephen Duckett, the plain-spoken Australian PhD economist hired to run AHS by Hughes and Liepert and then publicly sacked by premier Stelmach in November 2010, thinks of today’s development. Presumably, he has returned to the Antipodes, his $736,000 payout in hand. A for-sale sign rocked in the bone-chilling breeze today in front of Duckett’s residence in a posh Edmonton neighbourhood near the University of Alberta.

After Saturday’s nomination of Shariff, Mount Royal University communications professor David Taras, a political scientist who is a quotable favourite of the media, told the Calgary Herald the outcome was “shocking” and scrambled for an explanation. “It’s all about the ground game and obviously (Shariff) had a better ground game,” he told the no-doubt equally nonplussed Herald reporter. … Well, yeah!

Actually, the Calgary West nomination was but one of four Tory nomination races in southern Alberta yesterday. However, the only item of interest to come out of the rest of them is that one losing candidate in Calgary-Fish Creek, Joey Oberhoffner, was described by the media as a “political blogger” as if this were a reasonable job description for an aspiring office holder.

I would conclude from this, people, that there is hope for the world. Oberhoffner is known online as “the Enlightened Savage,” which judging from his political pedigree is at least half right. Calgary-Fish Creek is represented by Heather Forsyth, a Tory MLA since 1993 who crossed the floor to join the Wildrose Party on Jan. 4, 2010.

Getting back to Hughes and Calgary-West, the surprise nomination outcome served him right, according to the only commentator about the Edmonton Journal’s story by late afternoon. “It takes a lot of arrogance to think you can just resign from a cushy high-profile patronage job and step into a Tory nomination,” said someone identified as Old Grey Badger. “Gee I wonder if Hughes can get his old job back now. … Most likely Redford will appoint him as Alberta’s Trade Ambassador to Moldova or some other ‘really important’ position.”

Actually, much the same thing occurred to many Albertans. Who would bet against Hughes turning up in an important post-election position advising Premier Redford?

In other political surprises yesterday, south of the Medicine Line, serial adulterer Newt Gingrich served up a can of whoop-ass to former Mormon bishop Mitt Romney, the front-runner, in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. Why can’t Canadian politicians have names like Newt and Mitt?

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

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...