Alberta is preparing legislation it says would protect public health care as it seeks to inject the issue into the coming provincial election campaign and use it as a weapon against the Opposition United Conservatives.
But the government isn’t saying whether the legislation will even be debated, much less voted on, before an election call that could come as early as next week. Premier Rachel Notley has scheduled a Throne Speech for Monday but has avoided saying whether she would hold a spring session and present a budget or immediately launch into a campaign.
The Throne Speech and any subsequent legislation would form the backbone of the party’s re-election platform. Unlike the United Conservatives, whose Leader Jason Kenney has been making regular platform announcements on a wide array of issues, the New Democrats have said little about any new policies they plan to put to voters during the campaign.
The NDP has, however, spent weeks attacking Mr. Kenney through campaign websites and news conferences warning that a UCP government would impose cruel cuts to health care and other services – something Mr. Kenney has flatly denied.
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman gave only a vague sketch of potential legislation and declined to reveal any details about what the bill would actually include. She also deferred questions about the timing of the election to the Premier.
“I’m absolutely very passionate about public health care and I’m developing a bill around protecting public health care,” Ms. Hoffman told reporters in Edmonton.
“It’s something I’ve been grappling with for a few years, how we could find ways to improve and strengthen the public health-care system here in Alberta. I think, ‘Why not today?'”
She said she’s concerned about health-care services that are either privatized or under threat of privatization, referring specifically to lab services and hospital laundry. Those are both areas that Mr. Kenney and his United Conservatives have suggested they would reform if the party wins the election.
Last month, Mr. Kenney announced a “public health guarantee" that promised to maintain a universal and publicly funded health-care system while maintaining or increasing funding. At the same time, he has promised to find ways to save money, such as by cancelling plans for a centralized testing lab and by contracting out hospital laundry services.
On Wednesday, he dismissed the health legislation as a pre-election gimmick designed to scare voters.
“They love trying to scare patients and seniors, but it won’t work," he said.
“It does concern me that in their desperation the New Democrats may be trying to avoid voters for another five weeks.”
He said the UCP would support any bill that reaffirms a commitment to public health care, but not if it involved establishing costly government monopolies on services such as laundry. Mr. Kenney said the NDP’s house leader gave the Opposition notice that legislation would be introduced but that he had not seen any details of what would be in it.
Under provincial legislation, the election must be held by May 31. Mr. Kenney has repeatedly called on the Premier to drop the writ since Feb. 1, which would have been the first opportunity launch the campaign.
Political scientist Duane Bratt, who teaches at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said health care doesn’t seem to be the central issue that it has been in previous campaigns. Instead, he said it’s been overshadowed by the province’s continuing economic problems.
“[In] all the polling data I have seen about issues, health care isn’t even in the top five any more,” Mr. Bratt said. “It’s all economic issues.”
With a report from The Canadian Press