Friday, June 18, 2004

The Liberals Rebound with Medicare

This is Canada and it had to happen. As sure as the sun will rise in the morning, the power-hungry Liberal Party of Canada, when in trouble, resorts to attacking the province of Alberta. Unfortunately, this being Canada, it seems to be working – for now at least.

After falling even with the federal Conservatives in public opinion polls, the Liberals may finally have found their issue. Following the televised debates this Monday and Tuesday, it seemed that Paul Martin’s average performance had done nothing to improve the Liberals’ slumping fortunes, but then along came Alberta Premier, Ralph Klein. Klein, who is expected to call a provincial election for this coming November, let it be known that he will be announcing changes to how Alberta delivers medical services in the province, and he said the announcement will come two days after the federal election. What’s more important though is that there has been a suggestion that those changes may contravene the federal Health Act.

Well, this was all Paul Martin and the Liberals needed. Their response was fast and furious. Immediately they accused federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper of being in bed with Ralph Klein, saying Harper would be Klein’s silent partner in Ottawa, allowing Alberta to make hash of the Health Act. This, according to the Liberals, is proof of Harper’s “scary secret agenda,” the one they’ve been talking about all along.

And if the latest polls are to be believed, this time, the scare tactics may be working for the Liberals. According to the latest SES research tracking poll, the Conservatives have fallen to 29%, five points behind the Liberals at 34%. Now, this may be a momentary thing, but it could be the key to unlocking this election for the Liberals.

Unfortunately, if it does that, then it looks as though Canada’s future may not be so bright, and here’s why.

First, as Stephen Harper has been quick to point out, there’s something highly hypocritical about Paul Martin taking on the role of defender of the medicare faith. After all, it was Paul Martin as finance minister who cut transfer payments to provinces, forcing them to scrounge around for money for health care. In fact, it was the increasing costs of health care that drove many provincial governments further into debt, all the while the federal Liberals happily went along balancing their budget. And in these circumstances, should anyone be surprised if the provinces would start looking for other ways to deal with their medicare shortfalls, including the possibility of privatization? Apparently, the federal Liberals are surprised as Paul Martin takes on the mantle of the great health care defender.

But it doesn’t end there. Stephen Harper has today asserted that in fact Paul Martin has known about Klein’s health care reforms all along, because he discussed them with Klein, and approved of them. If this is true, then Martin’s hypocrisy is compounded by outright deceit. The sheer spectacle should be enough to make voters sick.

And this leads to the next issue: will voters be hoodwinked? The latest poll is just the first on the heels of Martin’s divine transformation, but will the trend continue, could the Liberals win on this issue? If so, this doesn’t say much about the Canadian electorate. The Liberals had hoped to scare Canadians all during this campaign, to scare them into not thinking seriously about the future of medicare, among other issues. The Liberals have simply called for the status quo, even though the status quo is crumbling before our eyes. Until now, it seemed that Canadians were actually considering that the status quo wasn’t good enough, that the Health Act perhaps needed changing rather than defending. Maybe this was a mistaken perception. Sadly enough, this would mean that Canadians really are as insular and unsophisticated as the Liberals think.

What do I mean by this? Well, one of the first things the Liberals did during the early stages of the campaign was to play the “we’re not Americans” card. One of the surest ways of scaring Canadians, at least according to the Liberals, is to tell us that a proposed reform would make us more American. Whenever the Liberals want to defend the status quo and protect their power, they refer to the dreaded caricature they like to paint of the Americans. Of course, no one bothers to mention that the one thing that has made Canada more American than anything else is precisely that great Liberal achievement, the Canadian Constitution. But we’re not supposed to mention that.

However, when it comes to medicare, we don’t even have to look at the US for other models. You see, there’s this whole continent called Europe. And here again, Canadians like to think they’re so much more European, more sophisticated than the Americans. But this makes me wonder if Canadians ever go to Europe, because most Europeans countries combine public and private in their health care systems, including socialist Sweden. Apparently Canada’s Liberals, great sophisticates that they are, don’t have much interest in Europe either. Perhaps progressive Cuba is a better model for the Great White North.

And then there is the third and final issue, which is how easy it has become to use the provinces, and especially Alberta, as the Liberals’ whipping boy. Now, I’m not saying that Ralph Klein doesn’t go after the federal government when it suits him, but on the federal scene, this is more than made up for by the federal Liberals attacking Alberta, which is probably the most innovative province in Canada in many areas. But that never stops the federal Liberals, because innovation is something they loathe. It’s much easier to just slap Alberta around.

The problem is, Ralph Klein is ready to slap back, and maybe that’s why he’s willing to let Stephen Harper take the blows. As I mentioned, Klein is taking Alberta to the polls this fall and nothing gets Alberta stirred up more than a fight with the federal government. Paul Martin, in order to save his bacon, has taken Klein’s bait. But in doing so, he may have doomed Canada. For one thing, many Albertans have finally felt that this time, their voices might be heard in Ottawa with a new Conservative Party and a leader from Calgary. The polls were looking good for the Conservatives. Should the Liberals pull off a win now, especially doing so with an attack on Alberta’s premier, the outcry from Alberta will be enormous. The most likely reaction will be an easy victory for Klein, who will then proceed to claw back numerous powers from the federal government. And this will have substantial implications, because it could invoke a constitutional crisis that will make Quebec referenda pale in comparison. The federal Liberals may find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew this time. And if Alberta takes the lead, Quebec will be quick to follow, demanding more and more powers for its own government.

Of course, what’s worth noting here is that medicare is, in many ways, Canada’s de facto constitution. It is the one thing that seems to animate Canadians, at least English Canadians more than anything else. On the other hand, Albertans are becoming an increasingly dissatisfied lot in Canada, and perhaps they’re ready to accept some privatized medicare if it means more independence from the rest of the country. This is one battle from which Canada may not recover.

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