One positive thing you can say about Premier Gordon Campbell's approach to health-care reform is that he hasn't been blowing as much smoke as Alberta's Premier, or for as long.
For example, although asking a bunch of questions in the B.C. Throne Speech was not exactly an act of leadership, Premier Klein's much-vaunted "Third Way" in health care has mainly added to the gas supply on Ralph's side of the Rockies. And, although it's hard to imagine Mr. Campbell's latest buzzword -- "transformative change" -- ever crossing the lips of Alberta's populist Premier, it does seem like forever that Mr. Klein has been promising one earth-shattering announcement or another to improve health care in his province.
Like Mr. Campbell, Mr. Klein argues that public health care is unsustainable, although it's hard to make the case when your system is the most copiously funded in Canada and you're sitting atop budgetary surpluses of Saudi proportions. Perhaps this explains why Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were repeatedly able to make Mr. Klein the foil of their successful election campaigns. Indeed, some Albertans still haven't gotten over their anger at Mr. Klein for having denied Stephen Harper the big prize in 2004.
Few Canadians seem to have been troubled in the early 1990s when the little guy from Shawinigan availed himself of U.S.-style medicine at the Mayo Clinic. However, news that private clinics have been operating all these years in Quebec, including one run by Paul Martin's personal physician, neutralized the Liberals' favourite tactic in last May's election, particularly after the Supreme Court ruled that Quebec's public system must deliver timely care to patients.
In devising the government's response to that decision, Quebec Health Minister Philippe Couillard took to the road, which brings us to another good thing you can say about Mr. Campbell. Here you have to stretch a bit, because Dr. Couillard is the Health Minister, not the Premier, and he's also a medical doctor.
In Victoria, by contrast, it's been clear from the day Mr. Campbell revealed his travel plans that there was no need for him to visit Norway, Sweden, France and England -- and certainly not while the legislature was in session.
Then, the tour turned into a public-relations disaster when it emerged that the Premier's brother-in-law, no fan of public health care, would be along for the ride. In consequence, the man who should be travelling, Health Minister George Abbott, bailed out at the first opportunity, after insisting for most of the week that he had not known this was to be a family trip.
Interestingly, Dr. Couillard travelled to Israel, which is recognized internationally for its world-class doctors. However, the Jewish state is also known for its smart businessmen, who, once they've taken off their white coats, are often the same people. Less well known is the fact that, next to the United States, Israel has the most unequal distribution of income of any democratic nation. Together, these factors have provided the perfect context for the development of a parallel private health-care system.
Dr. Couillard's visit happened to coincide with a legal case that could have come straight out of a Monty Python skit; not surprisingly, it has captured considerable public attention. It concerned an internationally celebrated cardiac surgeon who, after performing open-heart surgery, left a patient with his chest open on the operating table of a public hospital in order to get to a private clinic in time to operate on a private patient. Dr. Couillard took one look and said no way to the Third Way.
Instead, two weeks ago, he brought in a series of sensible reforms, including private clinics like those that already operate in B.C. and Alberta in full conformity with the Canada Health Act. To those who insisted that he could police against any abuses of a parallel private health-care system, such as he witnessed in Israel, Dr. Couillard asked rhetorically how many bureaucrats he'd have to hire.
Quebec's decision to respect the Canada Health Act is a huge blow to premiers Klein and Campbell. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in search of a majority government in the next election, will surely see the merits of protecting public health care should either premier, or both, attempt to institute a parallel private health-care system in his province.