“How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”—a line from the spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West.
If the government’s attacks on Alberta’s doctors are any indication, anyone up for contract renewal this year will have a more luck trusting their own pants than trusting the government to negotiate in good faith.
(Non)Negotiations with the doctors
A quick recap, negotiations have dragged on since Mar 2011. You’re forgiven if you lost track of all this, it’s been almost 2 years.
By Nov 2012 the government had signed and discarded two “agreements in principle”. Then Health Minister Horne surprised everyone with his “best offer”. It reflected the “value” the government placed on the doctors and Alberta’s “fiscal reality”; which at that time was a distant rumble on the horizon. The $6 billion bitumen bubble had not yet sprung from the fertile imagination of Ms Redford’s speech writer.
What Mr Horne failed to say was that the “offer” was an edict with no input from the doctors and stripped out the very thing the doctors had been fighting for—the right to participate in decision making.
Mr Horne’s “offer” coincided with the kick-off of the government’s “blame-the-doctors, shame-the-doctors” campaign,*a concerted effort to discredit Alberta’s doctors by flooding the media with misinformation.
Twisting the “facts” to divide and conquer
The Premier’s and Health Minister’s statements might, in another context, be considered unfair practices. They include:
- The “best offer” is around $181 million, oh and by the way Alberta doctors are paid 20% to 29% more than the rest of Canada’s doctors (not true, they are paid 14% more and guess what, so are the rest of us)
- In order to meet the doctors’ demands we’d have to resurrect the healthcare premium. (This is killing a fly with a sledge hammer because it would bring in an extra $1 billion in revenue to cover the doctors’ $50 to $60 million inflation increase).
The doctors reacted as one would expect. They reached out to Albertans with summits on key issues like Redford’s plan to replace Primary Care Networks with Family Care Clinics at five times the cost. Meanwhile Dr Giuffre, president of the AMA, challenged the premier’s misinformation with data from Stats Canada and CIHI. The government lambasted the AMA for going to the press but the doctors refused to be swiftboated.
Who do we trust?
How do we decide who to trust? It’s easy. Test the veracity of the doctors’ case by going to the AMA website. Ask yourself: does the statistical information make sense?
But what about Health Minister Horne? We’re in luck. We can test his honesty by reviewing the transcript of his evidence in the Preferential Access (Queue Jumping) Inquiry. True, Mr Horne’s testimony relates to queue jumping not doctors contracts, but it’s enlightening not because of what he said but how he said it. Giving evidence under oath is the ultimate litmus test.
The highlight is Mr Horne’s answers to questions about the “Duckett memo”; a memo prepared by the former CEO of Alberta Health Services in which he warned that queue jumping would no longer be tolerated. The “Duckett memo” surfaced in 2011. The media and the opposition parties had a field day.
Mr Horne was asked a very broad question, was there “discussion within the ministry” of the memo. Nope. (1504)**
Really? This answer troubled Justice Vertes who asked (1520): ”Did I understand you correctly to say that there was no discussion about that Duckett memo when it arose in the media?” “None that I was involved in, sir, in my capacity…” Mr Horne was an MLA with additional duties as a parliamentary assistant to the Health Minister but what does that have to do with anything?
Justice Vertes found Mr Horne’s answer “somewhat surprising”. He said he’d have thought that the accusations “would have been quite the topic of conversation” within the health ministry.
Finally Mr Horne buckled. “Okay. I’m sorry, I thought you meant sort of like a formal discussion in association with my role, so no. But, you know, in terms of general discussion about—about it with people, yes. Certainly people were talking about the memo.” (1520-21)
Hallelujah! The truth at last. After evading the question twice, Mr Horne was forced to admit that yes, there had been discussion about the Duckett memo, he’d just sorta misunderstood the question (Oh you’re asking whether there was any water-cooler talk, not whether I had a formal discussion in association with my role as parliamentary assistant to the health minister). Good grief, this isn’t the Watergate inquiry.
So do I trust the politician who “misunderstands” a question (twice) in order to avoid answering it or the doctors who publish statistical data on an open website? Three guesses.
What does this say about leadership?
Good leaders lead by creating consensus and alignment, not conflict and animosity. The premier’s “blame the doctors, shame the doctors” strategy turned the AMA contract negotiation into a personal attack on the doctors leading to a “I win/you lose” outcome.
It signals what we can expect from this government in the coming year. Crush the doctors, and the nurses, teachers, and public servants will fall into line. We’ll still have a $6 billion hole in our revenues, Albertans will learn to live with substandard healthcare, education and infrastructure, but corporations can rest assured that their tax and royalty structures will not be touched.
To paraphrase Sophocles, trust dies but mistrust blossoms…it’s great for the lawyers but it’s no way to run the richest province in Canada.
*AMA President’s Letter Feb 6, 2013
**All page references from the Hearing Transcripts
—Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry