Can focus on health care, reminders of Klein cuts, help NDP on election day?

So, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is thinking about having a spring sitting of the legislature next week instead of calling an election.

NDP will be only too happy to lump Jason Kenney together with former premier Ralph Klein

A cloud of dust rises near downtown Calgary in 1998 as the smoke stack from the old General Hospital falls to complete the implosion of the seven structures. (The Canadian Press)

So, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is thinking about having a spring sitting of the legislature next week instead of calling an election.

And she's thinking of introducing Bill 1: the Protection of Public Health Care Act, or a title to that effect.

On the other hand, she's also thinking of calling the election almost immediately after Monday's speech from the throne. No spring sitting; no Bill 1.

Sources in government say Notley really hasn't made up her mind, that she might call the election soon after the speech from the throne, or she might introduce legislation to focus attention on NDP priorities such as public health care.

One of the factors apparently weighing on Notley's mind is that a spring sitting means her MLAs will be forced to spend their time in the legislature rather than out campaigning against United Conservative Party candidates, most of whom are not MLAs.

Yes, but I'm not sure if door knocking is going to help many incumbent NDP MLAs who, according to public opinion polls, face such an uphill battle they should be campaigning with grappling hooks.

Calling the election early isn't going to help them.

Calling the election a week or two later might.

That's because the NDP is hoping an investigation by the election commissioner into the 2017 UCP leadership race — that's already led to fines against people affiliated with the Jeff Callaway leadership campaign — will find something damaging on the Jason Kenney leadership campaign.

Then there are the potential benefits to the NDP of focusing attention on public health care, long a New Democratic favourite.

Health care a wedge issue?

By introducing a bill with the warmly fuzzy title of Protection of Public Health Care Act, Notley would be trying to make health care a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign.

Helping her hammer in the wedge is none other than Kenney, who last month dramatically signed a giant cardboard "guarantee" that he'd protect a universal, publicly funded health-care system.

Kenney's critics say he undermined that guarantee this month by announcing a UCP government would scrap plans for a $600-million "superlab" in Edmonton and farm out the medical lab testing work to the private sector.

Kenney is talking about more private delivery of publicly funded health care, not more private health care. There's a difference. But the NDP is happy to bludgeon Kenney with the same issue that did so much damage to Ralph Klein's reputation back in the day when he was premier.

Klein cuts in 1990s

Two decades ago, the Klein government used explosives to destroy the old Calgary General Hospital — and thus solidified Klein's image among his critics as someone who wanted to literally destroy the public health-care system.

Klein spent years trying to overturn Alberta's health-care system and replace it with a two-tiered "third-way" that would be a blend of the Canadian and American systems.

In 2000, Klein introduced Bill 11: The Health Care Protection Act. Yes, it has a title today's NDP has apparently stolen, but the difference is Klein's title was so ironic as to be Orwellian.

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Klein's bill launched a thousand protests from critics who saw it as a sneaky back-door way of allowing private hospitals.

In 2002, Klein bragged that his "spectacular" reforms to the health-care system would "create a bit of a firestorm" and "a lot of protests."

In 2004, he told his caucus that his "un-Canadian plans" might "contravene the interpretation of the Canada Health Act and that we ought to be ready for a firestorm."

In 2006, Klein contemplated changes through an act that would have allowed doctors to practise simultaneously in the public system and in a vastly expanded private system.

Third-way shown the doorway

The act would have also opened the door to foreign companies to run for-profit hospitals and for  Albertans to buy insurance to cover all the new private health services. The new legislation would have pointedly ignored the Canada Health Act.

However, Klein faced so much backlash from the public to his ideas of health-care overhaul that his third-way was eventually shown the doorway.

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These days, as Alberta's newest conservative leader, Kenney is being careful to parse his language carefully so he cannot be accused of trying to resuscitate Klein's "third-way" of private health care.

But Kenney likes to compare himself to Klein on so many issues, such as debt reduction, that the NDP will be only too happy to lump Kenney together with two-tier, third-way, hospital-destroying Klein on the issue of private health care in Alberta.

Especially with an election coming in weeks, if not days.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read the editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM).


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