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Tory posturing on eHealth bid could harm already fragile agency

Tim Hudak could well be Ontario's premier three months from now.

But if his Progressive Conservatives are thinking about how they'd run the government, rather than just how to get there, it wasn't readily apparent this week.

It's no great mystery why the Tories pounced on some fresh news about eHealth Ontario; the mere mention of the provincial agency's name, given its scandal-plagued past, can be damaging to Dalton McGuinty's Liberals. But to keep the story alive required them to make some truly perplexing insinuations about how the province is run - and to risk making that job even more difficult, if they get a chance at it.

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On Thursday, it was reported that eHealth might award a contract for digitalizing prescriptions to a company that employs two men who previously worked at Courtyard Group - the consulting firm that was wrapped up in previous controversies over the agency's spending habits. So excited were the Tories by this revelation that, on Friday morning, they trotted out attack-dog MPP Peter Shurman to pronounce that the government should "disqualify" the bid in question.

Never mind that the bidder, Telus Health Solutions, is by Mr. Shurman's acknowledgment "a great company." Never mind that there's no indication that either of the former Courtyard executives is directly involved. And, most important, never mind that Telus emerged as one of two finalists for the contract through an open and competitive procurement, exactly the sort of process that the opposition (and eventually the government) lamented was lacking previously at eHealth.

"If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck," Mr. Shurman said, "we don't want to be anywhere near it."

In effect, Mr. Shurman was arguing - after all those past allegations of political interference at eHealth - that there should be moreinterference in handing out contracts. By the logic presented on Friday, the government should comb through the list of employees at any company up for its business, and disqualify any firm that employs people it doesn't like.

Given that Mr. Shurman carefully avoided the question of whether his party will ban Telus bids if it forms government, it's highly doubtful that the Tories are serious about any of this. But that doesn't necessarily mean their posturing is without consequence.

If Ontario is to make overdue progress in digitalizing its medical records, a key part of modernizing the province's health system, it needs eHealth to find its feet. After the tumult of the past few years, which included the ouster of its senior executives, the agency is already fragile enough; the last thing its new leadership needs is another hit to morale from another round of hand-wringing over how it goes about its business. Nor would it be helpful for the particular project that Telus is bidding for - which is aimed at increasing patient safety, reducing fraud and saving the government money - to be thrown off course by uncertainty.

More broadly, a string of spending controversies has already resulted in some degree of paralysis across Ontario's public service, with many bureaucrats afraid to take any risks or show any initiative. By many accounts, the pendulum has swung too far - from a lack of accountability to an excess of process.

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For that, Mr. McGuinty, who once promised to invigorate the bureaucracy, and has ultimately failed to do so, bears much of the responsibility. But now, the party leading in the polls headed into this fall's election has indicated that ministries and agencies can follow all that process and still get publicly called on the carpet for failing to pass what PC MPP Lisa MacLeod referred to as a "smell test."

Mr. Shurman had a different way of putting it, one that rather accurately summed up the politics of opposition. "We want not only propriety," he told reporters. "We want the appearance of propriety."

Good luck to the Tories, if and when they form government, in trying to deal with public agencies that feel they have to meet that subjective standard to everyone's satisfaction. But then, Mr. Hudak will cross that bridge when he comes to it.

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