Braid: Smith's health care plan just one sign of major change in store for Alberta

Creating four health pillars (or silos) of which AHS is only one is top-tier reform when the real problems are street-level

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Danielle Smith’s reshaping of Alberta public life is just getting started.

This week showed her willingness to upend systems and shape them to her own wishes. We can expect much more of this.

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Her massive health care changes are the most obvious. The system will be in tumult for two years while AHS is trimmed down, or “de-aggregated,” as she says.

There’s no doubt about the problems in health care, but the reasons for the upheaval are openly political.

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Ed Stelmach, the founding premier of AHS, and Smith herself both alleged that the heath authority has slipped beyond government control and taken over virtually everything.

It’s a weak rationale for two reasons.

First, AHS was created precisely to assume control of the entire provincial system. That was the whole point.

At every step since 2008 it has been overseen and directed by a government-appointed board or a special administrator like Dr. John Cowell, reporting to both the health minister and the premier.

If AHS is truly at the point where it must be broken up to save us all, that’s the fault of successive governments that failed to keep a grip.

Smith herself is deeply resentful of AHS, partly because of pandemic responses she didn’t like. She’s suspicious of big power centres. Many delegates to her convention last weekend were scornful of AHS.

Anger isn’t a great motivator for effective change. And this response — creating four health pillars (or silos) of which AHS is only one — seems disproportionate in scope and aimed at the wrong problems.

It’s top-tier reform when the real problems are street-level: finding and keeping doctors and nurses, cutting surgery wait times, ensuring that ERs don’t fail and close, easing the career-ending pressure on family doctors.

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How much of this will be done when the management layer of AHS is embroiled in a two-year fight for the next corner office?

Something else that happened this week showed this premier’s desire for political control.

The UCP will not renew the terms of both Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler and Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler.

A committee will find replacements. Technically, this is a non-partisan matter but the committee on legislative officers is always controlled by government MLAs.

The UCP has a history of unhappiness with both these independent officers.

In 2019 they fired Lorne Gibson, who handled electoral complaints. He pursued scandals emerging from ex-Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership drive, with too much vigour for the party’s comfort.

The duty then fell to Resler, the electoral officer. He promised that investigations would continue, and stuck to it.

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In UCP circles there was a deep conviction that the fines were too high, and that the electoral officer had no business sticking his nose into party leadership races in the first place. 

Then Resler’s office badly bungled public communications before the election that Smith won in May. On voting day results were late. Those failings gave the UCP some cause to seek a new electoral officer.

Trussler, the ethics commissioner, didn’t just annoy Smith and her crew. She infuriated them by dropping her report that found the premier was in conflict of interest during the May election campaign.

“Bombshell” is an overworked political term, but this was nothing less. It threatened to cost the UCP the election and hand victory to the NDP.

Trussler found Smith violated the conflict act by talking to her justice minister, Tyler Shandro, over criminal charges against preacher Artur Pawlowski. Smith had spoken to Pawlowski sympathetically and a recording went public.

At the end of her report, Trussler urged the government to legislate a halt to investigations or release of reports during a campaign.

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The lack of such a provision, she said, puts the ethics commissioner “in an extremely difficult position with respect to the timing and release of any report.”

Her point is obvious. Hold the report and she’ll be accused of cover-up. Release it and she’s charged with trying to bring down the government.

But the public interest is for the truth to come out promptly whatever the political context. An awkward day at the commissioner’s office is no reason to change the law.

The UCP is now doing exactly what Trussler wants, of course. Bill 8, introduced this week, will ban investigations or their release during a campaign.

Despite that, Trussler won’t be back as commissioner after her term ends next May.

With all her plans for pensions, policing, provincial sovereignty and government systems, Danielle Smith may well try to drive more change than any conservative government Alberta has ever seen.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

X: @DonBraid

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