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Stephen Duckett walks the plank, but won't be the last man over the side

Stephen Duckett

There's blood in the water -- and it’s not just Stephen Duckett's!

The crusty CEO of Alberta Health Services may have been the one made to walk the plank Wednesday, but Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach emerges gravely wounded at the end of the sorry trail of cookie crumbs that led to Duckett's termination.

No matter how you spin it, there is no good news for Stelmach in the ludicrous soap opera that climaxed with the firing -- and it was a firing -- of the PhD economist the premier's Conservative government imported from Australia less than two years ago to guide the province's health care system toward the future.

The straw that broke the camel's back, ending Duckett's unhappy tenure at head of Alberta’s year-old health care "super board," was the man's own contemptuous refusal to talk to several Edmonton radio and television reporters while munching an oatmeal and raisin confection and screeching, "I'm eating my cookie! Can't you see I’m eating my cookie?"

Duckett obviously thought this was a hilarious way to tell the local media to bug off. But when a video clip of his performance was uploaded to YouTube.com and went viral, watched by about 150,000 viewers to date * -- including, apparently, the premier -- few others were amused.

In one way, it's extremely odd to see a high-paid senior executive brought down by a trivial moment of bad judgment. In another, though, it was entirely appropriate, given Duckett's consistent contempt for most of the players in Alberta's health care system from the day he arrived in our province.

Last year, at a time credible new political challengers to the premier were emerging, large numbers of Albertans began to tell their Conservative MLAs they were very worried about the state of the health care system.

The government’s attitude improved. Stelmach shuffled abrasive health minister Ron Liepert to the energy portfolio, where he would alienate fewer voters. He replaced him with Gene Zwozdesky, whose approach was to go slow and soothe Albertans' fears.

But Duckett's confrontational style frequently frustrated Zwozdesky's efforts. And so it was last Friday when he blundered onto the stage with a performance straight out of a Monty Python skit, just as Zwozdesky was struggling to overcome the latest uproar over the pressure on the province’s emergency wards.

Called on the carpet, Duckett coughed up a half-hearted apology, but it was too little, too late. Under obvious pressure from the premier, a deeply divided AHS board pulled the trigger -- reaching a "mutually agreed decision" with Duckett that he should ship out at once, at a cost to Alberta taxpayers of close to $700,000. Three Duckett supporters on the board are nevertheless expected to quit in protest.

The brouhaha also widens the split in the Conservative caucus between hard-right market fundamentalists and moderates committed to maintaining public health care. St. Albert MLA Ken Allred went even further, siding with the Opposition parties on requiring ER wait times to be legislated.

The public is frightened. The government has lost its ability to pretend Alberta Health Services calls the shots on unpopular health care decisions. The premier looks as if he has completely lost control. To top it all off, if you have the bad fortune to end up in an emergency ward, you'll have to wait as long as ever.

Now, while the often-tactless Duckett can’t be held personally responsible for the state of Alberta's health system, he was obviously the wrong choice for a job that requires diplomacy and sensitivity. Liepert, who hired him, must share some blame as well.

But it's hard not to conclude the person most responsible for allowing a difficult but manageable situation to spin out of control is the premier himself. Indeed, it is not too strong to say Stelmach's ability to lead the province and fix its ailing health care system has been gravely compromised by this affair.

It’s hard to shake the feeling Duckett won't be the last man over the side because of this.

* As of today, the number of viewers has shot up to close to 250,000.

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga's column in yesterday's edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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