Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky

Uh-oh! Mr. Dithers is back.

Gene Zwozdesky used to be the Mr. Dithers of Alberta politics, back in the day when he was minister of education and that file was causing some problems for the accident-prone government of Premier Ed Stelmach.

When things weren’t unfolding quite the way he wanted, Mr. Dithers … I mean, Mr. Zwozdesky, um, dithered….

More precisely, during his tenure at the Education Ministry from November 2004 to December 2006, Zwozdesky visited schools to make sure he understood the problems of schools. After a while, he visited more schools. Eventually he’d get around to making a decision, he promised, but first he wanted to visit some more schools.

He was still visiting schools when the 3 o’clock bell rang and all the kids got on the yellow bus and went home. Then Premier Ed Stelmach dumped the former Liberal who crossed the floor from cabinet. Too much dithering, maybe?

Anyway, Zwozdesky may dither, but by God he is smoooooth! Eventually the former professional singer and dancer (really!) found his way back into a minor cabinet post. And when the clamourous Ron Liepert — who had replaced him as education minister before stirring up all the teachers in the province to a state of near rebellion — proceeded to muck up his next portfolio, health care, the tables were turned and it was the mellifluous old crooner Gene Zwozdesky the premier brought up from the minors to save the day.

This was not so long ago. Alert readers will recall how, just last year, Liepert had worked his reverse Midas touch to the full and torqued pretty much the entire province into a full-blown swivet about the state of the health file. Seniors booed when Conservative MLAs turned up in public in their home communities; it was nothing for 500 or 600 people to show up at a town hall meeting protesting Liepert’s outrageous plans to close hospitals, up seniors’ drug payments or shuffle the elderly into American-style pay-for-everything nursing homes.

It was, in other words, a full-blown political catastrophe for the premier.

Eventually the message sank through Stelmach’s skull — likely about the time several hundred protesters surrounded his leadership review meeting in Red Deer, not a town usually associated with noisy mass protests — and he skidded Liepert off to a safer portfolio in the oilpatch, where people actually think the same way he does.

Zwozdesky took over on the Ides of January this year, and up until now has performed brilliantly.

First, he overruled basically every decision of substance made by Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, the crusty Australian imported by Liepert to shake things up in the province’s so-called health superboard. The minister promised Albertans there would be more study before anything rash was done. Then he schmoozed every upset party in the province — crooning a song so soothing he could be dubbed the Velvet Fog of Alberta politics.

The result — perfect from Stelmach’s perspective — was that Conservative polls stabilized, Wildrose Alliance polls stalled, and pretty well everyone seemed to go happily back to sleep. If some decisions needed to be made, well, Zwozdesky was looking into them.

The problem is that looking into things is not only Zwozdesky’s great strength, it’s potentially his downfall too.

As former Liberal Leader and health care boffin Kevin Taft once said of Zwoz, as he is known: “Gene Zwozdesky is as smooth as any politician that you’ll meet, but is notorious for struggling to make even the simplest decisions. … My greatest concern for Gene Zwozdesky is that the health-care system will dither to death and will die the death of a thousand dithers.”

And alas for Zwozdesky, all of a sudden — thanks to an emerging crisis in Alberta’s emergency rooms — the health care system is unexpectedly a disaster all over again. And guess what Zwozdesky is doing? That’s right, he’s dithering.

When the Opposition went after him in the Legislature earlier this week about the condition of emergency care, which the province’s emergency docs (Tories to a man, no doubt) characterize as being in a state of imminent collapse, Mr. Dithers responded that he had launched a tour of the province’s emergency rooms.

He told some questioners he’d already toured some emergency rooms. He told others he was about to tour some more. Pretty soon, no doubt, he’ll be scheduling a tour of every darn emergency room in the whole darned province, and maybe a couple in Saskatchewan too!

In other words, faced with an unexpected crisis caused in part by his senior health bureaucrats’ foolish decision to close badly needed long-term-care beds to advance the previous minister’s privatization agenda, causing the overflow to wash back into emergency wards everywhere, Alberta’s health minister has reverted to form.

As Taft also once said: “Gene’s there to take the heat. He’s there to smooth the many feathers that Ron Liepert ruffled. But I’d be surprised if Gene makes any tough decisions.”

That’s the problem, of course, to avert a crisis, tough decisions now have to be made. The right tough decision would be to stop all planned long-term-bed closures for the indeterminate future, and to start building new LTC beds as fast as humanly possible. That would take the pressure off acute care beds, and thus off emergency wards, in the short term at least.

But Mr. Dithers is back, and it’s not a pretty sight.

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...