Braid: COVID 'blast radius' wrecked trust in governments — but Smith's is best in a bad lot

Affordability and health care are the top priorities in every province — but the numbers on how provinces handle those issues are universally appalling

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The most destructive result of the COVID-19 pandemic is collapsing trust and confidence in provincial governments across the country.

The Angus Reid Institute, in an important new national survey, says “as the nation collectively explores the pandemic blast radius, levels of contentment across key issues — health care, education, housing affordability, addictions policy and others — are sliding further downward.”

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“Blast radius” is a dramatic but fitting image for the loss of faith in provincial governments to manage their basic jobs across every key issue.

The federal government isn’t included in this polling — very lucky for the Trudeau Liberals — but the numbers show they have a big problem, too.

Across every province, only 20 per cent of respondents say climate change and environment are the most important issues.

Even in Quebec, where climate action is a point of nationalist pride, just 26 per cent believe climate is the key priority.

Sixty-seven per cent of Quebecers — the highest outside Atlantic Canada — believe cost of living and inflation are the crucial issues. Next comes health care, at 63 per cent.

Affordability and health care are the top priorities in every province. But the numbers on how provinces handle those issues are universally appalling. Nowhere does a government get anywhere close to majority approval.

In 2020, before the pandemic hit, 49 per cent of respondents in all provinces believed their governments were doing a good or very good job on health care.

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Today, it’s 24 per cent.

The poll has a surprise for Albertans bombarded daily by news about overstuffed hospitals, chaotic emergency wards, ambulance shortages, and long wait times for hip and knee surgery.

Alberta has the best approval rating on health care — 37 per cent. Last year it was 28 per cent.

Peter Lougheed Centre
The Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary on Monday, January 8, 2024. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

In all other provinces but Manitoba and Newfoundland, health-care ratings have fallen, not improved, in the past year.

Approval is now 19 per cent in Ontario and 11 per cent in New Brunswick.

How is Premier Danielle Smith’s government, alone among the four big provinces, somehow gaining traction?

It’s not because of any current relief for patients or health workers. Problems have escalated over the past year, to the point where some experts say parts of the Alberta system have already collapsed.

But Smith is the only premier who has taken dramatic, highly visible action that will eventually change the whole provincial system.

She’s breaking down the provincewide health monopoly of Alberta Health Services, replacing every key executive, and launching three new health authorities for primary care, continuing care and mental health and addictions. AHS is a shrinking mammoth that will soon oversee only hospitals and acute care.

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In effect, the premier is returning Alberta to a multi-authority system somewhat like other provinces, although not based on geographic regions.

This may or may not work and it’s still a couple of years in the future. Many people in the system have profound doubts about what’s going on.

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But while other provinces apply bandages to health care, Smith promises a system-wide cure. She’s ripping up the roots of a system many people no longer trust or believe works for them.

In the court of public opinion at least, it’s working.

This poll also shows other results that look good for the Alberta government, at least in comparison to the dismal national standard.

On cost of living, for instance, Alberta disapproval is 62 per cent. Not much to brag about, you’d say.

But the negative rating is 81 per cent in B.C., 83 per cent in Ontario, and 77 per cent in Quebec.

Across the country, people are voicing bitter contempt for politicians and governments. The mix of inflation, high housing costs, crime and health-care failures has become politically toxic.

Desperate people want serious change. And it seems that the only leader who’s playing that card with any success is Danielle Smith.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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