Former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, now head of the health policy team at Australia’s Grattan Institute (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

A few Albertans may still remember Stephen Duckett, the remarkably undiplomatic Australian health economist hired by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government to run the then-just-created Alberta Health Services in 2009.

Dr. Duckett had a stellar resume and was obviously great in an interview. However, it turned out, he didn’t speak Albertan. Most Albertans can’t speak Australian. This led to problems.

Former Progressive Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It didn’t help that almost as soon as they hired him, the PCs tried to cut a billion dollars out of the AHS budget. Before you knew it, Dr. Duckett became a lightning rod for everything that was going wrong in the province’s health care system under the Tories. Trouble was, some of the bolts of lightning passed right through Dr. Duckett and landed uncomfortably close to the PCs. 

So, smart though he obviously was, after a while nobody around here wanted to listen to his prescriptive prescriptions, all delivered in an Aussie twang that Albertans of all political stripes found increasingly irritating.

After less than two years on the job, Dr. Duckett was fired by the Alberta Health Services Board for telling a group of reporters he wouldn’t talk to them about Emergency Room waiting times because he was eating a cookie. “I’m eating a cookie,” he kept telling reporters as he strode away from their scrum in front of a downtown Edmonton hotel, steps away from AHS’s main offices. “Can’t you see I’m eating my cookie?” 

Board Chair Ken Hughes pulled the lever of the trapdoor, but who can doubt that it was premier Stelmach’s office that had finally had enough?

Mr. Hughes later said he didn’t actually fire Dr. Duckett, they just “jointly agreed it is time to move forward.” Whatever it was, Dr. Duckett was paid out his entire year’s salary, benefits, bonuses and an amount to cover contingent liabilities. It added up to $735,630, so not just cookie dough!

Dr. Duckett packed up and returned to Australia where he found a job at the Grattan Institute, a respectable think tank devoted to public policy issues, running a program that thinks up big ideas about health. 

It may be the ideal position for the man. He knows the field, it’s difficult to be too blunt when you’re writing about policy ideas instead of trying to implement them, and, of course, nobody’s bothered by his Australian accent. 

Former Alberta Health Services Board Chair Ken Hughes (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In that role Dr. Duckett was one of the authors of a policy proposal published in September that argued the best way for governments to deal with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is to aim for zero active cases, and take tough measures to get there and stay there. 

Grattan’s four-point plan is summarized on Page 4 of the report:

  1. Governments should be explicit about their goal of zero active COVID-19 cases in the community and their plans to hit this target
  2. Governments should be clear to the public about conditions under which restrictions will be phased out or brought back in
  3. Governments should improve public health efforts
  4. Once Australia gets to zero cases, governments should use frequent testing and international quarantines to seek to stay at zero cases

Point 3, just to be clear, included lots of COVID tests, fast contact tracing, mandatory masking and economic supports for people forced to miss work.

The Australian state of Victoria, where the Grattan Institute is based and which has a population of about 6.4 million, largely adopted the plan.

It worked. 

As of yesterday, Victoria has gone 37 days without a single new case. No one was in intensive care with COVID-19. Indeed, no one was hospitalized with the disease. 

Alberta’s United Conservative Party premier, Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Effective today, the state government has eased restrictions, allowing private residences to have up to 30 visitors a day, increasing permissible public gatherings to 100 and easing masking rules. Private offices can bring back half of their employees. Nightclubs will be allowed to reopen. 

This wasn’t all Dr. Duckett’s doing, obviously. It helps that Australia doesn’t have to share its continent with another country. Still, his contribution didn’t hurt. 

Meanwhile, as the Victorian state government was accepting the recommendations of Dr. Duckett’s team, the United Conservative Party Government of Premier Jason Kenney was doing the opposite on every count. 

Mr. Kenney has explicitly ruled out aiming for zero cases. 

The UCP government has never been clear about when or why restrictions might be brought back, if indeed there are any circumstances in which they would be. All we know is that if we don’t knock it off, Mr. Kenney has threatened to call us down to the office and yell at us. 

His government has shown no willingness to improve public health efforts, and its dog whistles to its anti-mask, anti-vaxx fringe encourage anti-social citizens to ignore what measures have been half-heartedly adopted. 

There are no clear instructions on how to enforce infractions. There are few or no efforts to penalize participants the large anti-mask gatherings in Edmonton and Calgary, one of them involving a long-time friend and political ally of the premier. 

And Mr. Kenney has instituted measures to make it easier for travellers to come to the province with few or no restrictions on where they go or what they do when they get here. 

Yesterday in Alberta, population 4.4 million, there were 1,836 new cases, 19 additional deaths bringing the total to 615, 19,484 active cases, more than 600 of them in hospital and 100 in ICU. We’re taking about inviting the Canadian army to pitch field hospital tents in parking lots. 

By comparison, the Alberta-wide swivet about ER waiting times a decade ago seems quaint, and the situation in Australia today seems positively idyllic. 

That’s more than just the way the cookie crumbles! 

Join the Conversation


  1. Your blog is absolutely full of great facts. The UCP is not controlling the Covid-19 monster very well. Things just keep getting worse, and worse. The UCP will not admit that they aren’t handling matters very well. Alberta is now holding the top position for the per capita rate of people with Covid-19 in Canada. The UCP had a difficult time learning from when Covid-19 came to Alberta the first time. I doubt that things will improve, and that this problem will increase, and linger, well into the spring and summer months, and beyond. Someone will have to take the UCP to task for this. Will Albertans? I’m skeptical on that, given the enduring fanaticism with the conservatives.

  2. I think it’s clear who the cookie monster in Alberta is now, or the monster anyways.

    Alberta is a field hospital vortex. We have one, we want at least four more, and we’ll spare no expense for all things M*A*S*H. Wasn’t that show great?

    We love shovel-ready projects, like digging graves for the citizens. We’re also huge fans of creating jobs and learning opportunities for truckers. So if you have your air brake licence, there’s a reefer waiting for you. Don’t blame us if your groceries don’t get to the store on time. We need all the reefers and drivers we can get. You’ll get those trucks back when we’re done with them.

    We believe in Covid testing. Yes, we do. We test. We don’t do anything else, really. By some miracle, our capacity is now more than 23,000 a day. Pssst, we’re not going to tell you if that includes the (faulty) quick tests at the airports, so don’t ask. Our numbers are puffed up like CERB Cheezies.

    Well, let’s get back to another week of doing nothing. We’re winning the Covid race. We’re number one in all the categories!

  3. My wife and I were on a cruise ship shortly after Duckett was hired and the Australians on board literally said our Conservative government was stupid to hire him. They thought it was hilarious that they we would hire a guy who had deliberately destroyed their health care system and had basically been run out of town.
    Of course that was the Ed Stelmach Reform Party plan to try to force Albertans into a private for profit system and these Reformers are still trying to do it. That’s why Reformer Kenney deliberately hired former NDP finance minister from Saskatchewan Janice Mackinnon who closed down 52 rural hospitals in Saskatchewan and got her party defeated by the Brad Wall Conservatives.
    The Kenney government has been treating our doctors and nurses like morons, teaching their ignorant supporters to believe that they are our enemy for being highly overpaid, ignoring the fact that it was our former phony conservative governments who created this high pay for them. They had to spend millions to buy back the foreign doctors and nurses to replace the ones that Ralph Klein ran off.
    I will never forget the comments Klein’s father Phil made to me when he saw what Ralph was doing to our health care system by closing hospitals, closing 1,500 hospital beds, and cutting 5,000 nursing positions. “Al what in the hell is the matter with that son of mine? While he gives away billions in oil royalties he is forcing us to try to live without a proper health care system. This could cost some people their lives”. Phil was right it did and the lawsuits prove it. One was almost my dad.
    I will never forget the nurses bawling their eyes out in my office when Klein destroyed their careers, or the doctor with tears streaming down his face who told me he had 6 patients who desperately needed to be in a hospital and he couldn’t get even one of them in because of what Klein had done. I helped nine doctors and at least two dozen nurses relocate out of this province and not one wanted to go.
    While we watch these Reformers spread their lies with the help of the Sun Newspapers and Danielle Smith most Albertans have finally realized what they are up to and aren’t dumb enough to support them any more. Too bad there are still a lot of our fellow seniors who just aren’t that smart. They believe every lie they are fed.

  4. Victoria has had two major lockdowns, what was it eight weeks apiece?

    Also, with our integration with the US along with Albertas current economic fragility (thansk NDP for making the hole 4 years deeper) we arent in the same situation at all.

    Not to mention the weather. I guess we will see what happens when they get to flu season next go round.

    1. BRET LARSON: Thanks to the phony Conservatives making Alberta’s financial situation grim, when they didn’t continue to do the good things that Peter Lougheed was doing.

        1. It takes a special kind of obdurateness to be so completely indifferent to learning from the past. Good luck with that.

          Incidentally, the comments around Lougheed refer to his time as Premier. He had a considerable and interesting life after his political career.

  5. A cookie for your thoughts on the Alberta government’s current approach to COVID, Mr. Duckett?

    I suspect Mr. Duckett is glad he left behind Alberta’s dysfunctional political culture. Although the departure was abrupt, he seems to have landed on his feet fairly well and moved on. There certainly was a disconnect between plain spoken Australian and the obtuse political laden jargon of Alberta when it comes to health. However, the PC’s managed in part to stay in power for so long, by finding scapegoats when convenient and making dizzying U turns when necessary.

    On the other hand, Kenney and the UCP seem more like the Titanic full speed ahead at this point, when it comes to health care. It is admirable he is standing by his Health Minister so long, as the minister is really just carrying out Kenney’s wishes. However, the downside is Kenney is starting to wear both the general health care crisis, which he created before COVID, and now the additional health crisis related to COVID. I suspect it has gone beyond the point where firing someone at AHS or the minister will help Kenney or the UCP much politically.

    Mr. Duckett seems to have had time to reflect on what a good health care response to COVID might be without too much politics and Australia seems to have listened. Alberta on the other hand has had no transparency (does anyone really know what Dr. Hinshaw has recommended to the UCP), plenty of political jargon and our response seems be full of half measures, I gather out of fear that Kenney might alienate the UCP base. I suppose he can ill afford to alienate them at this point, as he has already alienated a lot of the rest of Alberta.

    Anyways in this case, Alberta’s loss seems to have been Australia’s gain. A plain spoken health advisor is just what is needed right now to cut through all the political bs.

  6. Maybe Bret Larson would like to provide us with a list of all the horrible things Notley did to us , instead of just believing the lies his Liberal hero Jason Kenney has been feeding him? I know some lawyers who would be interested in what he has to say. They have been saying for years that the guys supporting these phoney conservatives , starting with Ralph Klein, have absolutely nothing to defend themselves with if they were taken to court.
    Could Larson prove that Notley was a disaster when in fact she was just trying fix the horrible mess she inherited. Can he prove she wasn’t? Did he honestly think she could fix in only four years what these phoney conservatives created in twenty five? How would he have done it without spending any money?
    What these Kenney supporters had better start thinking about is the fact that the farmers and ranchers whose land has been rendered worthless by these orphan and abandon wells are looking for people to sue and I would suggest they stop bragging about the “horrific mess “as Lougheed called it that they helped create by blindly supporting these phoney conservatives, what do you think?

  7. One thing that Dr. Duckett stated about working for the Alberta government is that he really didn’t like it. Public healthcare was just one disaster away from a complete breakdown.

    The Dr. Cookie is now in Australia and guiding a very successful public health policy again the pandemic. Looks like Australia will have a minimal bodycount from Covid 19, while Alberta is looking at becoming the most devastated jurisdiction in the world, thanks to the UCP weird obsession with FREE-DUMB.

    Albertans have two choices: the freedom that comes from a managed approach toward the pandemic, or the freedom of the grave. I have a feeling Albertans are too stupid to know the difference between the two.

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