Aren’t conservatives supposed to think means testing is a good thing?

In the language of modern conservatism — which is neither modern nor particularly conservative, in any normal sense of the word — “means testing” is a mechanism for denying social benefits to large groups of people because they’re purported to be too well off.

Of course, since modern conservatives set the threshold for “too wealthy” as low as they can get away with, the concept of means testing is really code for denying social benefits — or, in Conspeak, “entitlements” — to as many people as possible.

The justification, of course, is usually the need for continued austerity, keeping taxes “competitive,” yadda-yadda, although the true motive is normally “benefitting the truly entitled, the 1 per cent of entitlement, as much as possible.”

In the normal course of events, the Organized Right is always in favour of means testing if it can be used to deny benefits to anyone who not at the very top of the heap, just as it is always against the same principle if it’s used to calculate income taxes to be paid by those who have benefitted the most from society’s structure.

I mention this only in the context of those health-care transfer program payments to provinces that the Alberta media is gloating about so gleefully nowadays.

Alert readers will note that thanks to the Alberta-dominated Harper Government in Ottawa, health-care transfer payments have gone up by $1.03 billion to $3.75 billion this year here in the richest province in Confederation.

Everywhere else, it would seem, not so much, making it harder to afford national standards of public heath care. It’s an increase of 38 per cent for Alberta, in case you were wondering, compared with 0 to 4 per cent for provinces that didn’t win the oil lottery — which may also explain why we’re so darned persuaded out here this is how things should work.

The Harper Government promised everyone a 6-per-cent increase in health-care transfer payments under the soon-to-expire Canada Health Accord this year, but since they’re giving almost all of it to the wealthiest jurisdiction — a new formula, don’t ya know — it’s not doing much good where it’s needed. But it will, presumably, shore up a few votes in the heartland, in case it’s been feeling a little neglected lately.

What this really illustrates, though, is the Harper Government’s penchant for giving the most money to the people who need it least — which, if you think about it, is also the driving motivation behind the conventional conservative position on means testing.

The fact that over the past few decades Alberta has gotten less back in health care transfers and other equalization payments than its residents paid in federal taxes has long been the cause of much whining among conservative rent-a-mouths around here. Never mind for the moment that we’ve all been paying the same rate of federal taxes, wherever in Canada we happened to live.

Back in the day, this was an extremely sore point with a certain group of well-known commentators, at least when they were not writing letters to the premier advocating that Alberta pull out of the Canada Health Act altogether and get no money at all from Ottawa, the better to sabotage public health-care delivery everywhere else in Canada.

I speak of course of the authors of the famed Firewall Manifesto, penned in 2001 by such luminaries as Stephen Harper, Ted Morton and the recently rehabilitated Tom Flanagan, the best-known proselytizers of sovereignty association for the windy West.

In those days, in such western independantiste circles, equalization payments of any sort that went anywhere else were seen as harbingers of dependency, welfarism and the kind of “culture of defeat” Harper was ascribing to Atlantic Canada in 2002.

Of course, that was then and this is now, and now that Harper is prime minister of all the unequal little Canadas, and the unequalest Canada of all is getting a billion dollars more in health-care transfers, the narrative about the need for a firewall has been toned down a little.

Today, indeed, one would think from the congratulatory tone of the local media, that God’s in his heaven, Ralph Klein is there with Him siting at His right hand, Ed Stelmach’s at last getting the credit he was due for constantly complaining about all our petro-dollars being hosed away on Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and Alison Redford is taking credit for anything that’s left, thank you very much.

Indeed, if you listened to the local media out here, you’d think it was all a big joke, with unhappy Ontario getting its much-deserved comeuppance at last.

And what are we Albertans going to do with this embarrassment of riches? Who knows? Bigger bonuses for the top dogs in Alberta Health Services, perhaps?

Health care here remains in chaos, with local hospitals crumbling into Third World conditions, critically ill newborns flown out of town because there aren’t enough trained staff members to treat them, and lineups are so bad again in the province’s Emergency Rooms that officials have taken to fudging the numbers, so it doesn’t sound as if the promise of more cash has helped out all that much — not yet, anyway.

Nevertheless, now that the big bucks are going to the Former Firewallers’ sweet home Alabamberta, everything has changed.

Well, almost everything. Alberta seniors will soon be subject to a new means test for pharmaceutical drugs that will transfer $180 million in drug costs from the province onto the backs of the elderly and ill, leaving some with a choice between drug therapy or food.

And the provincial government continues to demand wage freezes for front-line health-care workers.

But means tests for oil-producing provinces? Fuggedaboutit!

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...