The federal Conservative party needs an issue it can use to differentiate itself from the Liberals, appeal to Canadians and confirm itself as a serious alternative government with sound ideas and attractive policies.
Hmmmm, let’s see. Whatever could it turn to? What’s going on out there in winterland that might hold a strong appeal to a broad mass of voters? (Scratches head. Thinks real hard …)
OK, here’s a hint: HEALTH CARE! (Was that subtle enough?)
A memo must have circulated within the Ottawa pundit club, as suddenly there’s a rash of articles noticing that things aren’t as they should be in the venerated Canadian health-care system, which, until recently, we insistently assured ourselves was admired around the world.
“Ready or not, a new debate about the future of health care has begun,” says the CBC. “Why Canada is shutting down while the U.S. stays open: their healthcare systems,” explains Bloomberg News. “When do we admit Canada’s health care system just isn’t working?” wonders the Globe and Mail’s Robyn Urback. This after it’s been evident for years that our system was on shaky ground. Policy Options magazine warned in March 2020 — when COVID-19 was still barely a gleam in its mother’s eye — that “Coronavirus is about to reveal how fragile our health system is.” Dr. Katherine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told the Toronto Star: “You’ve taken a system that was really kind of teetering on the edge, and you’ve pushed it over.”
The emergence of Omicron, the failure of government efforts at all levels to get a handle on it and the prospect of another winter shuttered away indoors suffering panic attacks at every cough or sneeze seems to have concentrated minds on the undeniable fact that Canada’s health-care system needs a drastic overhaul. There aren’t enough nurses or other health-care staff, there aren’t enough beds, there’s not enough room in intensive care, we’re not equipped for surges or mass outbreaks, and years of budget pressures have left us vulnerable to unexpected events.
It’s not like we don’t spend the money . Health care spending tops provincial budget outlays. While the rate of growth varies, it goes up almost every year and has been drastically increased during the pandemic. We’re near the top in international tables of spenders, and while there are frequent proposals for efficiencies, no one seriously suggests costs can be drastically slashed.
For all the spending, the system is in a constant struggle just to keep up with demand. Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne expressed regret in a recent interview that her government put so much emphasis on balancing the budget that health costs got severely squeezed. Yet Ontario’s Liberals borrowed so heavily over 15 years in office that the province pays more than $1 billion a month in interest costs alone, plenty enough to flood the province with beds and nurses. So where did the money go?
The answer, as so often, is that it went into election baubles and social programs that win votes but strain the budget. You can’t have pharmacare, daycare, dental care, subsidies on electricity bills and other juicy offerings when you’re already borrowing to pay the bills on existing programs. This is a lesson many provinces, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals, simply refuse to acknowledge. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says we “can’t afford not to” launch new spending, at a time we can’t cover existing bills without taking out additional loans.
It’s a political opportunity and it’s there to be seized on. So where are the Tories? Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has tried, but to little avail. O’Toole seems to have trouble being heard. He’s like the two astronomers in the new Netflix film , Don’t Look Up, who try desperately to warn the world that a giant comet is hurtling straight for Earth, but can’t get people to acknowledge the great mass of oncoming death that’s clearly visible in the sky. Maybe that’s because the Tories are great at pointing out Liberal failings, but haven’t suggested much in the way of a creative alternative. With hospitals staggering under the workload, the opposition parties’ response has been to call for an emergency committee meeting where they can fire questions at the health minister.
Meetings won’t help much, especially as Canadians have largely tuned out official babble. There’s been years of talk about raising taxes, cutting costs, switching priorities, rethinking orthodoxies or embracing innovation, to little effect. Nor are voters likely to respond positively to proposals for experiments with private medicine. Imagine the reaction if the past two years had seen well-off Canadians getting easier access to tests, vaccines and hospital care while others scrambled for jabs, waited in long lines for tests, worried about vulnerable relatives and saw long-awaited medical procedures delayed. There might be a great theoretical case for it, but now’s not the time to launch it.
Health care is a provincial responsibility that gets billions of dollars from Ottawa. Seven of the 10 provinces have Conservative governments. Nova Scotia’s Conservative Premier Tim Houston won an upset victory by pledging a single-minded program to bolster the province’s problem-plagued health system. “Not just here in Nova Scotia, but in all of Canada, we proved that just because there is a pandemic doesn’t mean government gets a free pass,” he said at the time.
The opening is there for O’Toole and his federal party. If they can’t drum up the ideas needed to take advantage of it, they have no one but themselves to blame.
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