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Passionate defence of fired AHS chief prompts interesting speculation

U of A Professor Terri Jackson

When former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett was fired Nov. 25 for whatever it was he was fired for, most observers, this one included, assumed he would swiftly return to Australia.

Really, why not? It’s winter in Alberta and Edmonton has all the charm of downtown Pyongyang, only without the quality snow-removal services.

However, reading between the lines of the passionate defence of Duckett published in today's edition of the Edmonton Journal suggests another intriguing possibility: Could it be that Duckett intends to remain in Alberta to be a thorn in the side of the Conservative government that spent so much of the time he was in office second-guessing his decisions and letting him take the fall for its bad ideas?

The author, Terri Jackson, is a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta. However, she also has a strong non-professional interest in the situation. To wit, as she put it, she is "Stephen Duckett's life partner."

In a lengthy and articulate letter to the Journal, Jackson, who is a Canadian with a PhD in health policy, writes, "I want to comment here on how vulnerable public health systems are to privatization, and to tell your readers what they have lost in the government's ill-considered pressure on the Alberta Health Services board to sack Stephen."

Now, Jackson observes that some readers will dismiss her well-informed views as "a 'stand by your man' piece" -- as indeed it is, not that there's anything wrong with standing by your friends, no matter how you come by them.

But while readers may be forgiven for some healthy skepticism about the depth of her husband's commitment to public health care, or for that matter about the inappropriateness of his treatment at the hands of the "scalp-hunting" local media, Jackson nevertheless makes several points worth repeating.

She writes, for example: "Critics should understand that conservative governments around the world have sought to reduce public-sector health care services in one of two ways. The first is simply to starve the system of funds so that public care becomes so inadequate that electors reluctantly accept paying additional out-of-pocket costs to get decent health care."

Too true, of course, although she goes on to complain that "in Stephen's first year he was expected to balance the AHS budget by finding $1.3 billion in 'savings,' to deal both with the downturn in government revenues and over-budget spending by the previous health regions." Well, the conditions that led to the economic downturn Jackson cites were obvious by late 2007 and the health region deficits were well known by the summer of 2008, so Duckett, who was hired in March 2009, really has no excuse for missing those items before he agreed to take the job.

Regardless, she continues, "the second approach to reducing public health care is to use health dollars to buy off special interests and build buildings." The resulting budget shortfalls, she argues, create a case a system that is not sustainable, becoming another "pretext for privatization."

Now, this may be a reference the government's overruling specific cuts called for by Duckett -- for example, closing the Alberta Hospital Edmonton psychiatric facility. Nevertheless, in a broader context, it is a fair point. Readers can read the rest of Jackson's arguments themselves -- her letter is worth the effort.

More interesting at this moment, however, are the implications of the fact she wrote it at all, and what that suggests her husband may be thinking now that he’s footloose and fancy-free.

Obviously, no partner in a healthy family relationship would write a letter like this without the other partner's approval. This is clearly the case in this situation, as Jackson noted, "I … am at last able to express my own views without compromising him in his AHS role."

So, while the Journal informs us that Duckett still has nothing to say about his dismissal, obviously what his partner wrote was said with his approval, even if not with his complete agreement on every point.

Now, Jackson has a great job at a great academic institution, located close to home in one of the very best parts of Edmonton -- which should be some sort of compensation to the Duckett-Jackson household even if the climate here is pretty lousy, both meteorologically and politically. It has also been reported they have a child in school.

Her husband has just had a terrific financial settlement -- some of us could happily retire for life on his payout alone, even without a spouse continuing to work as a university professor.

What's more, Jackson obviously feels -- and by inference it's safe to conclude that her husband does too -- that Duckett wasn't given enough time to do the job he was brought in to do, even without the almost daily interference he has suffered (none too patiently, by the sound of it) from the day Gene Zwozdesky became health minister not quite a year ago.

It is also absolutely safe to surmise -- whether or not his infamous Cookie Walk and many other sharp comments were "just being Australian," as Jackson asserts -- that Duckett feels ill-treated and insufficiently consulted in this whole affair.

So why wouldn't he stick around for a while -- silently or not -- to be a reminder, or maybe even an outright irritant, to the rapidly unraveling government of Premier Ed Stelmach, which both members of the Duckett-Jackson partnership clearly feel has done 'em wrong?

Time will give us more hints, one supposes, when Duckett is ready to speak with the media. But maybe, just maybe, he has another role to play in the endless health care debate in this province than the one that has just completed its run.

Jackson -- who obviously would have liked the opportunity to warn us to "be careful what you wish for" -- closes instead with some words from a song by Joni Mitchell: "You don't know what you've got 'til it’s gone."

Premier Stelmach's biggest worry now, by the sound of things, should be that whatever it was he had, it isn't gone!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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