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What drives the conservative urge to wreck public health care?

The Calgary General Hospital is exploded into rubble on Oct. 4, 1998, a symbolically spectacular example of Conservative mismanagement of health care in Alberta. Photo: Screenshot of video.

One of the unusual features of the past four years in Alberta has been the remarkable calm that has prevailed in our normally tumultuous, shambolic, sometimes chaotic health-care system.

Under the NDP government, for the first time in the past 30 years at least, health care hasn't been a continual gong show, spinning ever closer to the edge under a series of conservative governments that couldn't keep their political paws off the system and swung back and forth from crisis-inducing austerity to hair-on-fire crisis spending.

This may have been because conservative ideology runs counter to reality -- no, in health care, "market solutions" do not work very well, no matter what you may wish to believe. Or it may have been because, as some theorize darkly, conservatives don't really want to see public health care succeed and therefore encourage failure to justify marketization.

Whatever, while many flaws remain in this large, complex and costly system, health care has never run more smoothly than since Rachel Notley's New Democrats unexpectedly came to power in 2015 and Sarah Hoffman was appointed minister of health.

Paradoxically, this has been to the disadvantage of the NDP as an election approached. Health care, a traditional NDP strength, has been ticking along so smoothly it's no longer a front-burner issue for most Albertans.

How did the NDP do it? As Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid pointed out yesterday in a column surprising because it is so at odds with his employer's drumbeat of attacks on the government, "the NDP calmed down the system, made significant improvements and provided stability for health planners, professionals and workers."

"Health care access and delivery are far more level and reliable than they were in 2015," Braid wrote. And in almost all of the 30 years before that, he could have added.

But don't worry, as the Herald columnist pointed out, Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party has a plan to "fix" all that.

Under the Progressive Conservatives, Braid recalled, "staffing and programs were flatlined, resuscitated and then put through the same survival cycle again. It was chaotic for doctors, nurses and too often for patients.

"Now the UCP proposes something even worse -- real-world cuts, with no apparent hope of a corresponding hike the next year." And all the meaningless Coroplast pledges about protecting health care signed by Kenney will not change this if he gets to do what he says he'd do.

I was thinking about Braid's credible prediction that Kenney's vow to impose austerity on health care once again "guarantees a return to the chaos of the Progressive Conservative years, and maybe worse, because there would be no panic spending spikes to save the day," when I came across another column about health care and conservatives.

The same day as Braid published his observations, Paul Krugman, economics columnist for the New York Times and a Nobel Prize winning economist, took a look at what drives the U.S. Republican Party to sabotage, and now to attempt to repeal, the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama's signature achievement as president.

Given that U.S. President Donald Trump is now proposing to use a legal manoeuvre to take health insurance away from more than 20 million Americans in the year before a presidential election, Krugman observed, "it's no longer possible to see any of this as part of a clever political strategy, even a nefariously cynical one."

"It has entered the realm of pathology instead," he said. "It's now clear the Republicans have a deep, unreasoning hatred of the idea that government policy may help some people get health care."

Sometimes it helps to put issues close to home in a larger context. As has been observed here recently, over the past 40 years there has been a significant effort on the right to forge an international ideological consensus through promotion of institutions such as the worldwide network of utopian market fundamentalist "think tanks" and Astroturf groups.

As a result, nowadays, there is very little light between conservatives in Washington and their counterparts in Ottawa and Edmonton.

So, is it possible that Kenney and the UCP have, like their Republican brethren south of the Medicine Line, gone beyond mere cynicism to outright pathology?

It's not just health care

It's not just the health-care file where this happens, of course.

When Kenney touted his plan this week to roll back legal protections for LGBTQ students, it seemed weirdly like President Trump's decision to move against health care that benefits poor and working class Americans. That is, not particularly to the advantage of either politician, under present circumstances, to talk about such schemes.

We have to ask, does the same kind of pathology drive Kenney to do the wrong thing about protecting LGBTQ youth from persecution -- sometimes, sad to say, from their own families -- as drives him to promise to return health care in Alberta to the chaos and dysfunction of the PC years?

Hundreds of people gathered at the Alberta legislature in Edmonton last night to protest against the UCP plan to dump the NDP legislation that protects students who join gay-straight alliances and, instead, to allow teachers and private schools to out them to their families.

It is profoundly to be hoped that does not become reality. The best way to ensure it does not is to reelect the NDP on April 16.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.  

Photo: Screenshot of video 

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