Fixing health care for a generation

Monday, September 13, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

Each Labour Day, it’s not uncommon for Canadians to look back and realize that they’ve achieved little of what they had set out to accomplish over the summer. In my case, that means that both my workshop and home office are still a mess and the back deck still needs to be sanded and repainted.

But, in Prime Minister Paul Martin’s case, the agenda was a fair bit more ambitious, and the promises were made not to himself but to thirty million Canadians. Some of those Canadians even voted for him based on those promises. Thus, the consequences of his failure (or, in the very kindest interpretation, procrastination) are much greater.

And, just what was on Martin’s summer agenda? Check out what he said in the party’s latest Red Book:

This process begins with the First Ministers' meeting that will be held this summer. We are confident that the meeting will agree on the reforms that will fix medicare for a generation. Obviously, this discussion will involve a measure of give-and-take. Provincial jurisdiction over health care will be respected. Nonetheless, Canadians need to know the federal government's proposals for fixing medicare. It is our hope that the Liberal goals and proposals, as set out in these pages, will gain popular support, making it all the more likely that they come to fruition at the First Ministers' meeting and in the implementation period that will follow.

Martin, who apparently believes that more meetings will lead to better federal-provincial relations (recall that his first action after being elected leader was to have all of the premiers join him for a photo op at the Grey Cup game), once had an idea of how that ambitious goal would be accomplished. It wouldn’t be through the introduction of any stunning new federal initiatives, but through keeping the premiers together until they either collapsed or agreed to parrot the federal line. According to speeches that he made in March and April (yes, the words in the two speeches were exactly the same), the meeting with the premiers would be “not just for lunch or dinner or even a weekend, but for as long as it takes to put in place a health care system that is properly funded and clearly sustainable.”

Notwithstanding the fact that every Canadian knows that summer is really over when the kids go back to school, let’s grant that a meeting scheduled for September 13 and 14 does technically qualify as “summer” (afterall, we’ve already given Martin a free ride for his stubborn insistence on defining “a generation” as ten years). But, what happened to Martin’s promise to meet for as long as it takes to find a mutually agreeable solution? It seems to have melted away in the limited summer heat. Last week, Martin was backpedaling so fast that he nearly achieved levitation. “What I have said is this may be done in one meeting, it may be done in a series of meetings. Let's find out how many meetings it's going to take. I would hope that we'll make a lot of progress at this first meeting. But our goal is to fix health care for a generation and it continues to be our goal.”

If that continues to be the federal goal, they’ve done little to work towards it. Other than throwing cold water on the premier’s call for a national pharmacare program (on that is far from perfect, but certainly has merit), Martin has been very sketchy on the federal government’s proposals to fix medicare for a generation. He still hasn’t explained how the 2004 Red Book will fix health care for a generation after the failure to implement the 1993 Red Book broke it for a generation.

Moreover, Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert (in an interview detailed in Paul Wells’ blog at weblogs.macleans.ca/paulwells/) has complained that, as of last week, “there [had] not been a significant amount of work done or provided to the provinces. I mean, traditionally the first ministers’ meetings are chaired by the prime minister. Fair enough: there’s some responsibility, therefore, to be working with officials to build an agenda and so on. And I’m told by our officials that there’s not been a great deal of that done yet. Which is troublesome. I’m a bit hard-pressed to explain it. I just don’t have an explanation.” Perhaps Martin has an explanation. Let’s hope it’s at least as good as his explanation of why more than one meeting may now be necessary to achieve agreement.

As Martin’s self-imposed deadline for fixing health care for a generation approaches, perhaps he should be looking for further ways to backtrack on his bold commitment to Canadians. I’d suggest that he blame a recurring typo for the wide disparity between the promises of the spring and the reality of the approaching autumn. He should now tell Canadians that he meant to say that his government will fix health care in a generation.

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