Danielle Smith renounced and denounced Danielle Smith’s health care policy objectives at a United Conservative Party press conference yesterday in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park.
The Danielle Smith doing the renouncing is the one seeking re-election for her party next month in the face of an Alberta NDP Opposition that is now narrowly leading in the key election battleground of Calgary according to a new poll by a respected Alberta pollster, Janet Brown Opinion Research of Calgary.
The Danielle Smith denounced by Danielle Smith was the one who successfully ran for the leadership of the UCP last year on a platform including radical health care restructuring such as more privatization and a health spending account that according to a paper written in 2021 by the same Danielle Smith would be a great way to get Albertans used to paying user fees and co-pays in a privatized health care system.
The problem for the UCP, of course, is that both Danielle Smiths are the same person.
And that Danielle Smith is the current UCP premier of Alberta, now facing an investigation by the Legislature’s Ethics Commissioner after a recording of her unprecedented telephone conversation with an extremist pastor charged with criminal mischief sparked a huge controversy.
The question for Alberta voters in the provincial general election expected on May 29 is, Can they believe the new Danielle Smith is the real Danielle Smith.
The UCP must be feeling pretty nervous about this. The intent of the news conference the party called yesterday in front of a private medical imaging clinic in Sherwood Park, an Edmonton area suburb currently represented in the provincial Legislature by a UCP MLA, was to answer that question in the affirmative, at least as far as public health care is concerned.
Sure, not so long ago Ms. Smith herself said the government shouldn’t have to pay for regular medical checkups, or that Alberta could generate $4 billion in user fees, but apparently that was then and this is now.
Taking a page from the strategy of Jason Kenney, the UCP premier she replaced, Ms. Smith stood up in front of a large plastic image of one of Alberta Health’s cheap paper health insurance cards and announced what she called “the United Conservative Public Health Care Guarantee.”
Mr. Kenney did essentially the same stunt in February 2019 about two months before his election victory over the Alberta NDP. By that fall he was vowing to eliminate more than 5,000 jobs in public health care by 2023, a scheme that was only upset by the arrival of COVID-19 in Canada the next year.
“Under this public health care guarantee the UCP has committed to all Albertans that under no circumstances will any Albertan ever have to pay out of pocket for access to their family doctor, or to get the medical treatment that they need,” the premier said.
Ms. Smith repeated that point in similar words numerous times during the short news conference. “You will never use a credit card to pay for a public health care service. … You will only ever need your Alberta Health Care card. … Under a re-elected UCP Government your Alberta Health Care card will be your key and the only key to accessing world class health care … No Albertan will ever have to pay to see a family doctor out of pocket … You will never have to pull out your credit card to pay for health care. …” She also vowed a couple of times that no medical services would be de-listed on her watch.
But you are forgiven if you wonder if the premier doth protest too much.
Ms. Smith also denounced NDP advertising critical of her policies and plans that are running everywhere on social media – thanks to the more than $7 million raised by the NDP last year .
“Many of you have seen that the Alberta NDP has been lying to Albertans about our government’s position on public health care,” she complained. “That’s because they know that the only way they’re going to win this election is that they can scare enough Albertans into thinking that the UCP is going to make them pay for health care, or is going to steal their pensions, or who knows what else?”
(Significantly, perhaps, Ms. Smith didn’t go on to promise to drop her plan to take over Albertan’s Canada Pension Plan contributions and set up an Alberta pension plan.)
“Liberal-NDP fear-and-smear politics,” she insisted (with a former Alberta Liberal leader, now a UCP candidate, standing beside her), “don’t work in Alberta.”
The problem with the premier’s claim that the NDP is lying is that many of the Opposition’s ads use recordings of Ms. Smith’s own pronouncements – her own words in her own voice.
“My view is that the entire budget for general practitioners should be paid from Health Spending Accounts,” she burbled in that 2021 article for the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. “If the government funded the account to $375 a year, that’s the equivalent of 10 trips to a GP, so there can be no argument that this would compromise access on the basis of ability to pay.”
By coincidence, one supposes, yesterday the government – as opposed to the UCP – re-announced $9-million in public funding for a three-year program for a masters degree program at the School of Public Policy, which operates as if it were a publicly financed pro-privatization think tank.
How likely is Ms. Smith’s guarantee to work?
Well, Ms. Brown’s Calgary-only poll suggests it’s not working as well as the UCP might have hoped in Alberta’s largest city.
And as Calgary political strategist Stephen Carter told CTV News, Ms. Smith “is losing a lot of people, and we’re seeing that in polls now. And the problem with polls is once they go down, they tend to go down in a hurry.”
Then there was the reaction of one health care worker during the news conference whose image was captured by Canadian Press photographer Jason Franson.
The woman’s understated gesture may just reflect one person’s private view, but it’s a powerful symbol of the way a lot of Albertans are feeling right now about the premier’s effort to reassure us. So powerful, indeed, that on social media it all but hijacked the premier’s news conference!