Where is Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith’s evidence there was ever a deal between Networc Health Inc. and Alberta Health Services?

Smith’s whole it’s-not-a-bailout campaign calling for Networc to be bailed out by Alberta’s taxpayers hangs or falls on this thin thread.

And with each passing day, it looks more as if Smith’s campaign to get Alberta Health Services to bail out a bankrupt private surgical clinic in Calgary is her first major blunder since she became leader of the right-wing Wildrose Alliance in October 2009.

This is a backhanded tribute to Smith’s undeniable abilities as a charismatic natural politician, but that hardly diminishes the danger she now faces of being hoist with her own rhetorical petard. It will be very difficult for her to defuse this problem of her own creation.

AHS is the province’s so-called health superboard, responsible for all public health care in Alberta. Networc is the operator of a private clinic hired by the now-defunct Calgary Health Region to do hip and knee surgeries. Networc spiraled into bankruptcy after it made an expensive decision to expand its Calgary surgical facilities. Whether or not it had a deal with AHS to do so is in dispute.

Networc and AHS were in the thick of an acrimonious and increasingly public financial spat that had already migrated into the courts when Smith foolishly jumped into the fray on Aug. 19. In a Wildrose Alliance news release that day, she claimed AHS caused Networc’s business problems by making a decision “to terminate its contractual relationship with Networc Health.”

Her release went on to say the Calgary Health region had “committed to increase the number of surgeries performed by Networc Health to 3,500 per year.”

But at a news conference in Medicine Hat yesterday, AHS CEO Stephen Duckett confidently told journalists that “there’s no evidence that’s been presented to the court about any commitments made by the Calgary Health Region or Alberta Health Services about the expansion.”

So either Duckett has it right, or Smith does.

The smart money should be on Duckett. After all, the Australian PhD economist brought in by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s government to head the superboard in 2008 may be many things, but he is not a fool.

It strains credulity to believe, with the fight over Networc’s contract at a boil in both the court of public opinion and the Court of Queen’s Bench, that Duckett would have made a flat statement like yesterday’s without being confident of his facts.

Moreover, credence is lent to Duckett’s version of events by remarks made to the Herald in September 2009 by Networc CFO Bernie Simpson, identified in that Herald story as CEO, who was quoted as saying there had been no negotiations when the company decided to expand its facilities.

“It just makes business sense to try to continue to grow,” Mr. Simpson said in the Herald story.

So the ball is clearly now in Smith’s court to demonstrate to the public that she has evidence for her claims. It’s unclear where she’d be smartest to hit it.

Claiming she can’t comment on a public debate that she started because it’s now before the courts won’t wash.

But then, if Smith can’t quickly prove she was right to the satisfaction of the public, she has very few politically palatable options for dealing with this situation.

This post also appeas 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...