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David Swann announces his decision to step down as Alberta Liberal Leader in Edmonton on Feb. 1, 2011. (John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
David Swann announces his decision to step down as Alberta Liberal Leader in Edmonton on Feb. 1, 2011. (John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Letter from Alberta

Prominent doctor joins call for Alberta health inquiry, but is time running out? Add to ...

Health care has dominated debate at the Alberta Legislature for the past six months - but how long will the public pay attention?

Provincial politicians returned to the house Monday after a two-week break, and the official opposition Liberals picked up where they'd left off by calling, yet again, for a judicial inquiry into various allegations of wrongdoing in Alberta's health system.

It's the party's main issue heading into an anticipated election in 2012, but it is running out of time this year if it still hopes to shame the government into calling the inquiry, observers say.

The Legislature will sit for only an estimated few more weeks, and afterwards the opposition will have little chance to directly criticize the government until Question Period resumes in late fall.

"There's no question that momentum has to be maintained, because this government will do everything it possibly can to avoid a public inquiry," outgoing Liberal Leader David Swann acknowledged.

Over the summer, the Liberals' calls for an inquiry will also fight for attention with their own leadership race and that of the governing Progressive Conservatives.

"With two major leadership races going on in the province, it's very difficult," said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University. "They are running out of time, certainly."

To try and keep the ball rolling, the Liberals released a statement Monday on behalf surgeon Ciaran McNamee, who was forced out of his job a decade ago and now teaches at Harvard University. In the letter, Dr. McNamee joined opposition calls for a full judicial inquiry, which he pledged to testify at.

The government has instead asked an independent provincial health body, the Health Quality Council, to investigate, saying it will be much quicker than an inquiry.

"Why don't we let the health quality council review be completed? That will be done in nine months, as opposed to two to four years [an inquiry would take]" Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said, dismissing Dr. McNamee's call and urging him to speak to the council.

The government fears what dirty laundry might be aired in an inquiry, New Democrat Leader Brian Mason said.

"Evidence comes forward in pieces, but it steadily demonstrates the fact that only a full public inquiry, with the right to protect people, to call witnesses, to subpoena evidence, will get to the bottom of it," Mr. Mason said.

Prof. Brownsey likened the case to the Gomery Commission inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal, which has dogged the party for years

Health remains a top issue, "but there not be enough steam to carry it forward right now," he added. "That's the lesson [the PCs]have learned from Gomery: It may be better to just say 'There are problems and let's fix them.'"

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