Waiting in ambush for PC leadership candidate Ken Hughes: the ghosts of health care disasters past and present

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Back in the day when Alberta Health Services was still full of promise, AHS board chair Ken Hughes, above left, got his instructions from health minister Ron Liepert, right. Mr. Hughes is now a candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and Mr. Liepert is a candidate for Parliament. So far, though, Mr. Hughes is the only candidate for the leadership! Actual Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated.  Below: the real Mr. Hughes and Shiraz Shariff, the last Alberta politician to beat Mr. Hughes in a fair fight.

VICTORIA, B.C.

Unless some brave outsider actually decides to enter the race for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, it’s possible Ken Hughes could emerge as the winner.

The trouble with that scenario – from the perspective of both the PCs and Mr. Hughes himself – is that his biggest liability won’t become apparent until it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it.

And the liability in question is potentially huge: the massive fiasco that Alberta Health Services has become, and Mr. Hughes’ central role in creating that disaster.

Mr. Hughes, relatively alert readers will recall, was the first official candidate in the race to replace fired Alberta premier Alison Redford. Indeed, Mr. Hughes, astounded observers of the 43-year PC dynasty must be noting by now, was as of yesterday still the only candidate to enter the race. That’s got to worry the Hades out of Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock and the other powers-that-be in what remains of the Alberta Tory establishment!

Mr. Hughes, of course, is a consummate insider who nevertheless has lately been trying to play the role of an outsider who hasn’t really been a politician very long at all.  But don’t be fooled by that one, children. Mr. Hughes has been a politician almost as long as there’s been dust in Southern Alberta. It’s just that not all political jobs here are elected jobs as well.

For example, back in the day Mr. Hughes was an Member of Parliament in Southern Alberta for five years. He sat on Ms. Redford’s transition team, which is about as political as you could get in 2011. After that, he remained a Redford loyalist who decided to run in 2012 so he could serve in her cabinet.

Indeed, given his past role in AHS, there was even talk at the time he might end up being Ms. Redford’s health minister.  “Ken’s leadership helped AHS to deliver solid results, including over $660 million in administrative savings that has since been reinvested in patient care,” said Fred Horne, the health minister then and now, in a supportive press release in 2011. In reality, there was precious little evidence then or later that any money has ever been saved by the creation of the health care behemoth.

Regardless, readers will will also remember that Mr. Hughes’ transition back to elected politics wasn’t a particularly smooth one. When he sought the nomination in Calgary West in 2011, he was edged out on the third ballot by a former backbench PC MLA named Shiraz Shariff, who didn’t even live in the riding.

Party brass had to step in, citing never-verified allegations about unspecified voting irregularities, to schedule a rematch, which Mr. Hughes managed to win with a little help from his friends in high places.

After that, though, it was smooth sailing, with an easy victory for Mr. Hughes in Calgary West as the PCs and their clever advisors managed the “miracle on the Prairies” that kept the Wildrose Party out of power, followed by his swift appointment by Ms. Redford to the important Energy Ministry. Later, Ms. Redford moved him to Municipal Affairs in a reshuffle.

None of that is the problem, though. The problem is the extremely political job Mr. Hughes held for three years before he decided to throw his hat in the ring and officially become a politician again. To wit: as the first chair of the board of Alberta Health Services, when he was supposedly saving all that money mentioned by Mr. Horne.

And the reason that’s a problem for him – and for the PC Party if he chances to become the leader – is that it’s not misleading to say that since AHS was cobbled together from nine health regions by Premier Ed Stelmach and his brain trust back in 2008, the massive health agency has been nothing but a never-ending slow-motion train wreck.

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

AHS insiders liken the 100,000-employee, $18-billion-plus public health care agency to a black hole that sucks in money, talent and energy and returns very little. Eventually, some bitter veterans have speculated – only partly in jest – AHS will drag the entire province of Alberta into its gravitational field, and possibly parts of Saskatchewan and B.C. as well, compressing them into dark matter and transporting them to the far side of the universe.

Who are the figures most responsible for this mess? Well, there was Mr. Stelmach, of course, who as premier decided something had to be done about the power used too comfortably by the leaders of the two largest health regions, as set up by Ralph Klein, in Calgary and Edmonton.

There was Mr. Stelmach’s health minister, Ron Liepert, who may have been the one who came up with the idea of a single province-wide public health entity. (Just to show there is no justice in this world, or at least in Alberta’s corner of it, Mr. Liepert now looks very much as if he is going to Ottawa as replacement for the hapless hoplophile Rob Anders in the new Calgary Signal-Hill riding.)

There was Stephen Duckett, of course, the spectacularly undiplomatic Australian PhD economist who was hired by Mr. Liepert to run AHS, and then fired for saying what he thought to a mob of reporters.

And there was, of course … drumroll …  Mr. Hughes, who as chair of the AHS board played the role of Mr. Liepert’s ventriloquist’s dummy.

Silly metaphors aside, whether the PC government likes it or not, health care in general and the catastrophic AHS experiment in particular are going to be issues in the next election – and Mr. Hughes won’t be able to escape this by claiming he wasn’t elected to the key position he held in the fiasco.

That’s partly because the Wildrose Opposition has a plan for health care – not necessarily a very good one, but a lot of voters are bound to think anything’s better than Mr. Hughes’ massive health care Tar-Baby.

Even more, it’s because so many Albertans have concluded the creation of a single massive health entity was a disaster, and it won’t be all that hard to get them to think ill of Mr. Hughes as one of its principal architects – something all the Opposition parties are going to try to do if he ends up as the premier.

The thing is, though, if the only candidates are Tory insiders like Mr. Hughes – especially if they all come from cabinet too – not one of them is going to point too vigorously at AHS as a problem, or at Mr. Hughes as one of the problem’s architects, because they’ll all fear they’ll be seen as having a role in the AHS disaster.

Just now, Mr. Hughes is probably perceived by the public as being capable of doing the job in a dull sort of way – say, about as inspiring and charismatic as was Social Credit premier Harry Strom back in 1970.

Once the public has connected the dots between his current aspirations and his role in the creation of AHS, though, all he’s going to be seen as good for is keeping the chair in the premier’s office warm until Opposition Leader Danielle Smith shows up. Which, come to think of it, is also sort of like Mr. Strom!

But capable of winning an election? Not very likely.

If Mr. Hughes leads the PCs, the last few weeks before the election will be both exciting and personally difficult for him, and disastrous for his party.

Oh well, sooner or later someone’s got to be the last Tory premier of Alberta. It might as well be Ken Hughes.

Apologies to anyone who has been trying to file a comment on this blog and having to wait too long to see it appear. I am on the road and there are gaps in my access to Internet service. This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Categories Alberta Politics