The Borg is an alien race that exists in the Star Trek universe. Its sole purpose is to assimilate all other species, usually by force, into the “hive mind” in order to achieve perfection.
OK, hold that thought…
…now consider the recent debate over the Wildrose’s conduct in the House. Some argue that the Official Opposition acted improperly, resorting to tantrums and mudslinging instead of following the “dignified” example of their esteemed colleagues across the aisle.
A few facts to put this discussion into context: the government holds legislative sessions in order to carry on the business of governing. The democratic process allows the Opposition to hold the government and its individual ministers accountable by asking questions in Question Period.
Since “Question Period is a free‑wheeling affair, with tremendous spontaneity and vitality”* it’s a good idea to set some ground rules or there’d be blood on the floor. Enter Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit, the editors of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice.
The Marleau-Montpetit rules governing Question Period are simple: ask a question, be brief, seek information and keep the question within the administrative (ie not political) responsibility of the government or the Minister to whom it is posed.
Sounds easy…let’s test it with a question that’s been troubling WR Health critic, Ms Heather Forsyth and the medical community for months—how much will Family Care Clinics cost and how are they going to be staffed?
Remember Family Care Clinics—Ms Redford’s last ditch election promise to create 140 of them to make healthcare more accessible? I’m all for making healthcare more accessible, but as a taxpayer footing the bill I’d like to know why Family Care Clinics (FCCs) are a better solution than the 40 Primary Care Networks (PCNs) already in place.
Ms Forsyth “rose” in the House (I love how they “rise”) and asked Health Minister Horne a question: what will Family Care Clinics cost and how will we staff them? Her question met the Marleau-Montpetit criteria: it’s a question, it’s brief, it seeks information and it’s within the Health Minister’s portfolio.
Minister Horne’s responded with hot air.** He waxed eloquent about the new Kaye Edmonton Clinic, a $484 million facility that will “work very closely with both primary care networks and family care clinics that are serving the capital region, staffed by competent, enthusiastic health professions who believe in the benefits of primary care for the communities they serve.”
Okay, Mr Horne did use the words “primary care networks” and “family care clinics” in his answer, but his comment was hardly responsive.
Armed with FOIP-ed information she’d obtained from Mr Horne’s own department, Ms Forsyth pressed on. FCCs will cost between $3 million and $5 million each; the per patient cost will be $300 per FCC patient versus $65 per PCN patient and the doctors are worried that the government will scoop $700 million out of their compensation package to pay for them.
Mr Horne responded with sarcasm and obfuscation: “…if the hon. Member wants to play with the dynamics of health economics, I leave that up to her… As the hon. Member knows, we’re spending over $181 million in support for PCNs today. We’ve allocated a further $75 million in this budget and for the budget for the next two years to support family care clinics and other primary health care initiatives. That adds up for us.”
Does that add up for you? By my calculations the government will fund FCCs and “other primary care initiatives” to the tune of $225 million over 3 years—which is $195 million to $475 million short of the $420 million to $700 million that will be required (assuming WR FOIP-ed numbers are correct).
When Ms Forsyth didn’t drop her question Mr Horne told her to put it in writing (apparently it was too complex for a verbal answer).
Ms Forsyth dutifully tabled two written questions.** One asked for the projected annual operating costs of personnel for individual family care clinics. The other asked for the projected annual capital costs to build or lease family care clinics over the next four years.
But here’s the snag. Before Mr Horne has to respond to the written questions the House gets to debate the merits of the questions. Ms Forsythe made a number of arguments supporting her questions including the point that surely Mr Horne had an inkling of what Ms Redford’s pre-election promise was going to cost the tax payers.
Apparently not. Mr Horne argued that both written questions were “impossible to answer” because family care clinics will be developed in response to community needs, hence they’d all be different, hence the government had absolutely no idea what the projected operating and capital costs would be.
Both questions were put to a vote and were defeated (15 in favour of the government answering the questions and 38 against).
Let’s recap. Ms Redford made a pre-election promise to provide 140 family care clinics. The Opposition asked the government to provide the operating and capital costs that Alberta taxpayers will pay for these clinics. The Health Minister said it’s “impossible” to provide this information because each family care clinic will be unique.
And Albertans are happy with this answer! They must be or they wouldn’t be criticizing the WR for continuing to press for a response to these and other troubling questions.
Have Albertans lost their minds? If they allow the PCs to characterize Ms Redford and her government as hapless victims of the Opposition simply because the Opposition is asking legitimate questions then they have well and truly been assimilated by the Borg.
But guess what, some of us no longer believe that “Resistance is futile”. We stand behind the democratic right of all of our Opposition MLAs to hold the PC government accountable for its actions.
Message to the Borg , oops sorry, the PC’s, fasten your seatbelts; you’re in for a turbulent ride!
*House of Commons Procedure and Practice webpage—Oral Questions
**Hansard Dec 3, 1198, 1199,
***Hansard Dec 3, 2012, starting at p 1212