UCP Leader Jason Kenney, assiduously signing stuff (Photo: Twitter).

No one ever said Jason Kenney isn’t a shrewd politician who knows how to run a campaign, so give the man some credit for his clever effort yesterday to look strong on a weak file for his party and make the NDP look a little weaker on its strongest.

The United Conservative Party leader looked for all the world the Canadian Taxpayers Federation agitator he used to be as he bent over to sign a “Public Health Guarantee” on a Coroplast sign promising to maintain health care funding and “a universally accessible, publicly funded health-care system.”

Mr. Kenney in another characteristic pose (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

One problem with Mr. Kenney’s guarantees, of course, is that they aren’t really worth the plastic sheet they’re printed on, as scores of observers were soon pointing out on Twitter.

Who can forget the “Grassroots Guarantee” Mr. Kenney signed on another piece of plastic last year? He tossed it over the side the instant party members passed a potentially politically embarrassing policy motion on Gay-Straight Alliances at a UCP policy conference in Red Deer last May.

“I’ve always been clear that as leader I will consult broadly with Albertans outside of our party to develop a common-sense, mainstream platform to reignite our economy,” Mr. Kenney said piously at the time, never mind that the motion had been passed by nearly 60 per cent of the voters at the convention.

Mr. Kenney’s Corpolast pledge stunt, up close and legible (Image: United Conservative Party).

None of this is now likely to concern the UCP’s rank and file voters, who will feel reassured by Mr. Kenney’s latest promise and listen no more to what people like Health Minister Sarah Hoffman say.

Which brings us to another problem with Mr. Kenney’s guarantees. It’s not always clear what he actually has in mind. Here’s Ms. Hoffman, from a series of Tweets in response to the UCP pledge yesterday:

“Today, he claimed that he would follow through on the UCP’s founding convention resolution and that would somehow protect public health care. There’s just one problem … that resolution talks about moving to ‘privately-delivered health services where cost-effective’ and to ‘give Albertans the choice of privately funded, privately delivered health care services.’ It’s clear that with Mr. Kenney’s plan your quality of health care will depend on how deep your pockets are. This is two-tier, American-style health care.”

Of course, Mr. Kenney’s own experience with private health care may be a positive one. After all, the man apparently lived quite happily in the basement of a private long-term care facility in Calgary!

In addition to committed UCP supporters, an important question is how many undecided voters will be reassured by Mr. Kenney’s pledge as well. Probably plenty, if they’re not paying close attention.

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In addition, in light of recent events in Ottawa, it seems unlikely many Conservative supporters will be swayed by Premier Rachel Notley’s efforts to look tough on pipeline file, traditionally seen as a Conservative strength, regardless of objective reality.

If you’re unhappy with this assessment, I’m sorry. But it’s the way electoral politics work in this province, and have for generations, so yesterday’s posturing should come as a surprise to no one.

Answering questions from reporters yesterday, Mr. Kenney mused about the benefits of privatization. To some of us, that might undermine the credibility of his public health care promise. But in some parts of Alberta – objective reality notwithstanding – it could create as many friends as enemies to state that “choice and competition can help get better results at lower cost.” Of course, when it comes to health care and other essential public services, this is only really true in Ayn Rand novels.

Praising past privatization efforts in Saskatchewan, Mr. Kenney claimed that when that province “invited private surgical clinics to bid into the public system to perform surgeries on behalf of the public system” big bucks were saved.

Former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon (Photo: University of Saskatchewan).

Here in Alberta, of course, we have some experience with that too, during the years of Ralph Klein’s premiership when some hospitals were blown to smithereens and a couple of others were sold off to friends of the Conservative government for a song so they could run private surgical clinics that were supposed to save us loads of dough.

Alert readers will recall how, when one of those private clinics doing business in a former public hospital went broke in 2010, the taxpayers of Alberta ended up holding the bag for the Conservatives’ ideological dogma and Alberta Health Services got stuck with the job of ensuring that, somehow, the essential hip and knee surgeries it had been hired to perform continued to be available.

That cost a few bucks. But, as they say, it’s ancient history now. It’s hard to imagine very many Albertans remember the sad story of Networc Health and the Health Resources Centre any more. The ideological fundamentalism that characterized the Klein PCs has only gotten worse and less tethered to reality in Conservative circles in the years since.

Former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

So if we elect a UCP government, we’ll likely have to learn that lesson all over again and every day in health care will be Groundhog Day.

Mr. Kenney admitted to a reporter that his health care funding pledge also doesn’t include increases for inflation or population, so this in effect means he is still proposing cuts to the system. But he can point to the fact the NDP has spent a lot of time and energy “bending the cost curve,” as we say nowadays, to assuage this province’s mania for austerity and balanced budgets.

The UCP leader promised to commission a “comprehensive performance review of Alberta Health Services” within 30 days of taking office. The goal, he claimed, would be “to reallocate capital significantly away from administration, to delivery of front-line services.” This might not be a bad idea if the review were done by someone who didn’t see the potential for profit in the UCP’s ideological nostrums. That would rule out most of the world’s corporate consultants, though.

Interestingly, in his praise for things done in Saskatchewan, and in some cases the NDP officials who did them, Mr. Kenney didn’t mention one key health care policy enacted in that province that really did save a lot of money. To wit: closing rural hospitals.

Yes, he lauded former New Democrat finance minister Janice MacKinnon by name for her acceptance of private clinics, but he failed to mention that her signature policy as a member of premier Roy Romanow’s cabinet in 1993 was closing 52 small rural hospitals throughout the province.

That saved money, alright. It also infuriated rural Saskatchewan, which has never forgiven the NDP and remains solid Saskatchewan Party territory as a result.

That political reality hasn’t stopped Ms. MacKinnon from preaching to the Alberta NDP about how they should implement similar deficit-fighting measures here, which must make her the kind of Dipper Mr. Kenney can love.

Fortunately for Alberta, the real meaning of that cruel lesson wasn’t lost on Alberta’s New Democrats, and they ignored her lousy advice.

But what about Mr. Kenney? Did he miss that lesson … or did he absorb it? It’s too soon to say, but it’s something to think about.

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  1. When it comes to conservatives preserving publicly-funded health care — I keep hearing this harsh ringing noise in my ears: “I’m from the UCP and I’m here to help.”

    The charisma-free Opposition leader’s “Back-to-the-Future” business plan is dated—just like his current political party’s election pronouncements. When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were running for the leadership of the UCP they all spoke of punishing cuts to public services, education and health care — “it’s going to hurt” they all chanted in unison.

    Jason Kenney is on record of favouring a 20 per cent cut to spending, to bring us in line with the per capita spending of our B.C. neighbours. His guarantees — grassroots, health care or otherwise — are as vacuous as the empty promises he made to his own membership while campaigning for the leadership of the UCP.

  2. Those of us who are old enough to remember writing cheques can also probably remember small town merchants putting bounced cheques on display, to shame the writer of the NSF cheque to come in and make amends. One time I was in a convenience store in Pigeon Lake, and while I waited for the clerk I looked carefully at his displayed cheques. There were 3 from the same person! It was a classic case of the old adage: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

    I was really surprised that, after the Grassroots Guarantee fiasco, Jason Kenney would resort to another publicity stunt signing, and if there was much backroom debate over the advisability of it. How many people were reassured by yesterday’s signing, compared to the number of people who felt bitterness at the reminder of the betrayal they felt at having the Grassroots Guarantee pulled out from under them?

    This also leaves me wondering how much respect Jason Kenney has for the electorate, if he assumes he can fool them again (and again).

    Thank you, David, for also including the loophole Mr. Kenney gave himself about the lack of increase for inflation & population growth; the news stories I looked at yesterday failed to mention that. It certainly isn’t hard to imagine our slick UCP leader slithering around that loophole. It reminds me of when Ralph Klein was premier. I phoned the Premier’s office one time to complain about how Mr. Klein had campaigned on a promise to increase education funding but instead he decreased it. The assistant assured me that Ralph had kept his promise and increased funding the year he was elected, he just decreased it the following year.

  3. David, excellent point about the rural hospitals. Any comparison of per capita hospital costs between Alberta and other jurisdictions has to be adjusted for the reality that rural hospitals in Alberta, at least since the dawn of the Lougheed era in 1971 were intended for more than health care: they were intended to be anchors to keep people in small towns at a time when rail lines and elevators were closing: they let grandparents in long term care stay close to the family, attracted doctors and nurses to the local economy, and their kids to local schools, provided government-paid construction and maintenance jobs. In short, the hospital building boom in the 80s and 90s was not for health reasons but rather part of an economic subsidy for rural Alberta. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, and perhaps a legitimate government expense. But it was not driven by health care needs.

    1. Yeah, rural voters have long been deeply confused. They voted to destroy the Wheat Board, and they will vote for the continued erosion of their rural infrastructure and communities at margins of 70% or more because they hate and fear the modern world, what it comes down to. And they will blame the federal government and those hippies in Strathcona.

      If it were down to me, Provinces would be abolished, large metro areas would be like free cities of old, and rural area would be governed by a Home Office; we could the manage the regions without paying any mind to the locals’ constant belligerent whining, or allowing them to perpetually stifle the regional cities on which they entirely depend.

      1. And they demand improved highways, the better to spend their money at Walmart, Costco and IKEA.

        In Crowsnest Pass we have the oldest population in Alberta. They will not be thinking about hospitals or seniors’ benefits when they vote.

        BTW, the “Grassroots Guarantee” seems to be completely purged from their website. Some other party should adopt it, since UPC isn’t using it.

  4. “After all, the man apparently lived quite happily in the basement of a private long-term care facility on Calgary!”
    Mr. Blogger, you keep harping on the fact that he chose a modest Calgary life style. Come on! He was selflessly caring for his mom from the basement as any good son would do. So what if at the same time he was hitting up the taxpayer for the fat housing allowance he was entitled to for his fancy downtown Ottawa condo which he owned. Time to give the poor guy a break.

  5. Some factors in determining the highest cost/person in Alberta in the country are: “human resources pay and health care delivery approaches across different jurisdictions.”
    “Despite spending the most, Alberta has one of the lowest health care spending to GDP ratios because Alberta has some of the highest revenues in the country. Hospitals, drugs and doctor’s services took up the largest share of dollars spent.”
    Perhaps, the push for a national pharmacare program needs to be more vigorous. The ever increasing cost of prescription drugs/year is unreal.
    Here’s another interesting statistic: “Across the country, an average of $1539 per person is spent on children age 1 to 14, while the average is $11,301 for those over 65.” It is also estimated that as we age to 80 +, spending is $20,000 a year or more.”
    It is not lost on those of us health care professionals who work in long term care facilities that the elderly folks in Alberta most often vote for right wing politics, and that if spending is decreased for their age group they become confused as to why, as we have seen with certain cutbacks to this area of care already. The incidence of dementia is through the roof and the cost of the care and facilities required for dementia care, is staggering.
    Other countries, particularly European, who are rated as having the best health care systems in the world, require all citizens to have mandatory health care insurance. Perhaps we need to reconsider bringing back Alberta health care premiums.
    Needless to say, I am one of many frontline health care professionals who went through the Klein era health care cutbacks. Many middle managers lost their jobs, many frontline jobs were lost and the half the number of acute care beds in our local city were lost, i.e. from 400 to 200, and this is with an ever increasing population. We lost many professionals to the USA in those years. The work was, and still is, hard and had I known what was to come, I would not have done the profession. The educational, intellectual, emotional and physical requirements are significant, and we carried health care in Alberta during those ‘cutback’ years.
    Perhaps, it can only be imagined that a Kenny/UCP government will target health care professional wages, and many right wing voters would agree, despite on entering the health care system, have admitted their ‘Registered Nurses’ were worth every penny, as I have posted before. As was said during the Klein era cutbacks, ” People need to decide what they want,” i.e. if there are cutbacks, it needs to be realized how one votes and the health care received once it is needed, are intertwined.
    As an RN, who often still works in short-staffed conditions as compared to the heavy workload required, I would look at anything Kenney/the UCP would have to say about health care in Alberta, with a jaundiced eye. And, re: the musings re: privatization, it always needs to be remembered, “private is always, more expensive.”

  6. You would think that after Kenney so quickly abandoned the last “guarantee” he signed with great public fanfare, he would be hesitant to start making “guarantees” again. I suspect some even in his own party privately wonder if the guarantees Kenney makes are worth the large plastic signage they are printed on, but every actor has their favorite props and this one seems like one Kenney has turned to a number of times in the past.

    Con artists love the word guarantee and I think they are drawn to it because it sounds so reassuring and reliable to those they aim to dupe, but it really can be meaningless if there are no consequences for a guarantor who fails to keep their promise. What will happen if Kenney fails to keep his latest guarantee – will he resign or will he pay some sort of significant financial penalty? Of course not, neither is included is this guarantee.

    On the surface, Kenney’s commitment to review administrative expenditures on health care sounds reasonable, but also falls apart on closer inspection. While it is true, Alberta does have above average spending on health care, as pointed out in today’s Edmonton Journal by Keith Gerein, “Alberta’s health system has the lowest administrative costs in the country at 3.3 per cent of overall spending — well below the national rate of 4.5 per cent”. While the previous government did have high increases in health care spending around 6% per year, it has actually been quite contained in recent year to an under 3% increase per year, probably by already carefully managing administrative expenses, while still maintaining front line expenses. There becomes a point where cutting administrative expenses can start to undermine service delivery. For instance, you can cut spending on administrative tasks such as scheduling, payroll, computer systems, but if there are not enough resources devoted to support services like this it can easily result in chaos and inefficient management of front line resources. For example, the Federal Conservatives (who included Kenney at the time) when still in government were convinced they could save a few dollars by centralizing and creating a new payroll system and we all know the chaos that resulted and the hundreds of millions in expenses to fix the system. I don’t know if the software company that created this mess made any “guarantees” that the system they designed would work, but if they did it appears these guarantees were either to vague or not enforceable, ie. not worth the paper they were written on. Similarly, the previous Alberta government spent years trying to cut health care expenses, but all they ended up doing was creating a mess and chaos that they later had to spend a lot more money to try and fix. Kenney seems determined to again repeat the same mistakes Conservatives have made in the past.

  7. There’s a really less abused use of the word sad, element in your headline picture and in what you say about Jason Kenney and his signing of equally cartoonish pledges. It’s the fact that if ever there was a hope for a middle ground it is here, and now. Jason won’t give it to us, because he’s a..

  8. A good society would provide public healthcare at the same level of service as urban citizens receive including hospitals for rural citizenry even if they are much less ‘efficient’ than larger urban hospitals. Same with long term housing for the elderly so rural families could stay together.

    That efficiency has become the veto political criterion deciding the fate and design of public services signifies how far gone into a market society we are.

    If we taxed corporations and estates and incomes at the progressive marginal rates of the 1950s-60s, and hadn’t sold off our non-renewable petro-resources at fire sale prices, and continue to do so, Alberta’s public finances would be just fine and more than able to cope with some higher costs of rural public services.

    But as we all know, the market ideologues with their ideology of taxation-is-theft, leave it to the markets!, to the private sector magic, everyone has to look out for themselves at the end of the day, have come to dominate the ‘common sense’ of our politics, and Kenney’s UCP will by the evidence so far, intend to keep on doubling down on that agenda if they form government.

  9. Ah, political stagecraft. Talk, as everybody’s talking about these days, is cheap—so cheap, in fact, that it litters the footpaths and bridges of everytown, so cheap nobody can Zenofy that it’s a bargain at half the price; everybody’s buying it now and then throwing it away. Even the trammled subway transfer, properly collected and filed, will have academic value, someday.

    Talk about irony: given the SoCon’s quaint reverence of the divine written word or staged monogram, the true-belief certainty of canon, the infallibility of scriptural ‘proofs’ that, if not overweighing, say, the 97% of scientific papers (as Galileo knew are healthier blamed on the Devil) which confirm a hellish future awaits unabated petro-pollution, at very least parrying on even terms with a Big Bang in science classrooms (equal time being a sort of proof in itself), it’s odd indeed that, for SoCons’ hermeneutical parsing and censoring like Trumpian exegetes of the Ten Amendments, and gleaning the potent affirmation signallings of the right bit of text, they only do so out of Con-text.

    There isn’t an archivist born who wouldn’t have that signed “Grassroots Guarantee” placard in the collection (wouldn’t be surprised if one does). Strung together with sundry chronicles and other texts in the category it’d surely be comprehensively educative for voters so unKleined.

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