Today’s political weather forecast: Ill winds that blow no good will begin throughout Alberta on Wednesday.
After that, conditions will get worse.
Wednesday is when Premier Danielle Smith has promised us her health minister will present a plan to cabinet to “decentralize,” “reform,” “reconfigure,” or whatever, Alberta Health Services.
Call it what you will, the conventional wisdom in health care is that the chaos the Smith Government now proposes to sow is exactly the last thing our frayed and battered health care system needs. As is usually the case when actual experts are doing the predicting, the conventional wisdom is right.
The United Conservative Party doesn’t care, though – its leaders have has bigger fish to fry.
So never mind the positive spin you’re sure to hear. Everybody in this province understands that whatever the scheme Adriana LaGrange hands to cabinet says, it will have the potential to unleash a catastrophe in public health care in Alberta as severe as the battering the province’s health system took from the global coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020 and continues to this day.
This includes, unquestionably, the people who cooked up the plan for Ms. LaGrange, whatever it turns out to be, who are presumably hoping to create the kind of situation modern disaster conservatives use to undermine public services in their unrelenting quest for the financialization of everything.
But something is going on this time beyond the usual neoliberal shenanigans to create conditions in which privatization and similar “reforms” can be justified.
Indeed, as we have recently seen, Ms. Smith is willing to move her privatization agenda to the back burner, or even drop it entirely for a spell, in the face of political necessity like that created by the privatization-induced collapse of medical lab services in Calgary.
Whether she would be willing or able in similar circumstances to move away from her anti-AHS agenda in the face of a public backlash – especially at the risk of alienating the party’s radical and increasingly powerful Take Back Alberta faction – remains to be seen.
Regardless, for the Smith Government, its plans for AHS represent a new front in the ideological civil war within the conservative movement in Alberta and Canada.
If she is really proposing to move ahead with effectively dismantling Alberta’s province-wide public health agency – or to divest it of key functions it has held since it was established such as cancer treatment, mental health, addictions services, community health, and long-term care – the Smith Government will be intentionally destroying one of the signal achievements of the Progressive Conservative government that ruled Alberta from 1971 until 2015.
For, try as they might, the UCP can’t blame Alberta Health Services on the NDP – although the NDP does deserve credit for keeping it together and running smoothly under health minister Sarah Hoffman’s clear-eyed leadership from 2015 to 2019.
When the Progressive Conservatives created the largest integrated health care system in Canada in the spring of 2009, Premier Ed Stelmach and his health minister, Ron Liepert, may have merely been trying mainly to solve a political problem caused by the inconvenient power of the Calgary Health Region’s leadership.
Still, over the past 14 years AHS has matured into a success story from which Alberta has benefitted significantly.
By the start of the pandemic, AHS had the lowest administration costs of any health care system in Canada, according to a comparative study by the respected Canadian Institute of Health Information.
And Alberta’s response to COVID-19 was more effective than almost anywhere else in North America thanks to the size and purchasing power of AHS and the capability of leaders like former CEO Verna Yiu – who was later fired by former UCP premier Jason Kenney in a craven attempt to save his sorry ass from the same vaccine conspiracy theorists who now dominate the party he founded.
Mr. Stelmach and Mr. Liepert didn’t just pull AHS out of thin air, of course. The PC government of Ralph Klein had centralized health care delivery into large health regions, and then reorganized them again into larger regional agencies, principally as a cost-saving measure.
But this trend to technocratic conservatism with incremental privatization has now been confronted by the desire for a revolution in the neoliberal revolution by Take Back Alberta, the radical UCP faction inspired by Christian nationalism, bitter opposition to public education and inclusive schools, and president Donald Trump’s four years of misrule in the United States.
Ms. Smith, beholden to TBA for her hold on power and sharing its leaders conspiracy-minded distrust of vaccines and faith in quack COVID remedies, appears enthusiastic to go along.
TBA cadres – resentful about the inconvenience of public health measures during the pandemic, steeped in false conspiracy theories about vaccines and Christian nationalist dogma, and now poised to complete their takeover of the party at its annual general meeting next month in Calgary – want “reforms” of AHS that will make enforceable public health measures impossible in Alberta.
Of course, Ms. Smith’s claim her plans will make health care more responsive to local wishes may apply to abortion services in rural hospitals, but you can be assured this will not extend to wearing surgical masks in urban ones as COVID-19 spreads again.
Indeed, considering some of their leaders’ rhetoric, it’s not outside the realm of possibility TBA dreams of a day when life-saving vaccines can be banned entirely in Alberta.
Arguably, these extremists despise progressive Conservatives like Mr. Stelmach more than they hate the Liberals in Ottawa and the NDP Opposition in Edmonton, both of which they risibly label as “communist.”
Mr. Stelmach, by the way, remains actively involved in public health care, as chair of the board of Covenant Health, the province-wide organization of publicly funded Catholic health care employers set up in the same time frame as AHS.
UCP strategists may now try to leave politically disengaged voters with the impression their party is a continuation of the PC coalition that successfully and mostly popularly ran Alberta from Peter Lougheed’s election in 1971 until Rachel Notley’s NDP finally broke its grip on power.
But the reality is quite different. Under Ms. Smith, her separatist office manager and Svengali Rob Anderson, and TBA’s shadowy leadership, the UCP has become a sort of political subculture – Leninist in strategy and Christian nationalist in objectives – as determined to wipe out the accomplishments of previous Conservative governments as to attack Liberals and New Democrats.
It may be true that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but it can make a godawful mess when it starts to fall apart.
Recall that episode of The Twilight Zone where a mean little kid controlled everything and everyone in a small Ohio town and sets about, as Rod Serling put it, moving an entire community back into the dark ages?
Welcome to Alberta, where mean little kids are in charge and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is the Twilight Zone!