If men are from Mars and women are from Venus then the Health Minister must be from Nix, one of the 4 moons orbiting the non-planet known as Pluto. The Mars/Venus paradigm is supposed to help the sexes understand each other so we can actually get along. Well guess what…it doesn’t work in the political context, not even when a tiny little group of women and men go to meet just one man. Why? Because that one man holds all the power and the normal rules of engagement do not apply.
Last week I described the WCPH meeting with Health Minister Zwozdesky. What an eye-opening experience! When the Zwoz wasn’t bobbing and weaving to avoid the sticky issues he filled the air with political rhetoric. It was a one way communication with very few opportunities for WCPH to present its views. Not surprising really, given the Zwoz’s intense need to control the meeting. At one point he actually raised his hand and shushed one of our members in midsentence. (!!) We were stunned. A few minutes later he realized what he had done, patted her arm and said “I didn’t mean to cut you off”. Nice touch, but way too late.
The meeting was over in 45 minutes and we piled into our cars to debrief at the Highlevel Diner (very nice diner by the way—great strawberry rhubarb pie). We were unanimous in our view that the Zwoz was patronizing, dismissive and not even remotely interested in our perspective.
So why am I still fuming about this meeting? Because after being blown off in person—he did it again by email! (Please bear with me if I go off again into italics and !!! in random places in this post.)
The WCPH decided that the Zwoz needed to hear our feedback on the meeting. So we sent a follow up letter. Its tone was professional, measured and honest. We expressed our disappointment that after 18 months of trying to meet with the health minister he did not allow us to voice our concerns about the new Alberta Health Act or the commercialization of seniors care. Our frustration over the lack of transparency and accountability leapt off the page with the statement: “If we had had the opportunity, we would have closed the meeting by saying that “Trust” is a huge issue between the citizens of Alberta and your government”. In a last ditch effort to focus the Minister’s attention on our issues, we resubmitted an annotated agenda setting our concerns and asked the Minister for a well-considered response.
The Health Minister responded the very next day. He said he was pleased to have met with the WCPH. He regretted the fact he only had a ½ hour but as he pointed out before he was busy, busy, busy.* Then he came to the heart of the matter and said: “ I did listen carefully” to all of the WCPH points. He and his 2 staff members took notes “So I have a different version of how our discussion went”. In other words notwithstanding the unanimous view of the 7 WCPH members who attended the meeting and concluded that the Minister didn’t listen, cut them off and wouldn’t allow them explain their position, they were wrong! Again! Not only was the WCPH incapable of recognizing the good work Zwoz was doing on behalf of all Albertans in the area of healthcare and seniors care, WCPH couldn’t even figure out what was going on in a simple meeting.
What this boils down to is a variant of the classic “he said/she said” dilemma. I listened, no you didn’t, yes I did, no you didn’t, ad infinitum. In the Mars/Venus paradigm of male/female interaction you can learn how to overcome this stalemate. The WCPH would say, you didn’t listen and we’re really annoyed about that and the Zwod would acknowledge the fact that we felt like we weren’t listened to (even if he believed otherwise) and would offer to have another meeting where we could review our issues again and presumably this time he would listen.
Unfortunately the Mars/Venus paradigm does not carry over into the Tory political cosmos. In the PC universe the PC’s have all the power and the citizens have none, so it makes no difference whatsoever whether the Zwoz listened or not. All he needs to do is grant the public a 45 minute audience, lecture them, throw in a few red herrings and he’s done.
This miserable experience has played out a thousand times with a thousand different citizen action groups and professional associations (including the nurses, the doctors and the teachers) for what feels like 100 years. But it’s beginning to wear thin. The public (trusting souls that we are) is waking up to the fact that it’s pointless to try to have meaningful dialogue with Zwoz and others like him whose raison d’etre is not to represent the best interests of the people but rather to run interference while the government moves ahead with its own agenda—be it privatization of public services or the sell-off of non-renewable resources at bargain basement prices.
So what do we do? We’ll continue to “waste” our time talking to these guys—if for no other reason than to demonstrate that we’re not deceived by their smoke and mirrors public engagement process. But the better audience for these discussions is other Albertans. We will share our experiences and educate others, we will find the non-Tory candidates who say they will listen and really mean it, and we will work with them to reclaim the democratic process.**
Then the men from Mars and the women from Venus will pack these Nixonites back off to Nix where they belong. There they can spend their golden years sitting around not listening to each other.
* The Health Minister said he’d respond in writing to our issues. I’ll let you know if he does.
**I’d like to thank all of you who contributed in person and by email to this epiphany!