The white cat and black cat of medicare

Martin and Harper will dismantle medicare and open the doors to private health care if we give them the chance.

If the actual campaign is anything like the warmup, this election is going to be a sorry spectacle — a contest between two parties, both dedicated fora decade to dismantling medicare, competing for votes on the pledge to saveit.

It will be a competition for who will get to guard the henhouse, the fox orthe coyote. Both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, and their parties, willdismantle medicare and swing the doors wide open to private health care ifwe give them the chance.

For his part, Martin has done more than any other elected politician inCanada — including Ralph Klein, Brian Mulroney and Mike Harris — tosystematically and deliberately erode the foundations of medicare. He notonly cut the federal contribution to medicare by 40 per cent, but eliminatedthe legislation that gave Ottawa its leadership role in health for nearlytwo generations.

Established Program Funding was the foundation document for universality,ensuring that the provinces spent federal transfers on medicare. Martinrepealed this law, cutting the provinces loose to spend the money any waythey pleased. For seven years he steadfastly refused to use large budgetsurpluses to restore long-term funding to medicare. He still refuses to doso. And his health minister, Pierre Pettigrew, made it clear this month thatprivate clinics were on the order-paper of a Martin government, despite hisdesperate mea culpa the next day.

In British Columbia, Premier Gordon Campbell has withdrawn legislation,demanded by the Chrétien government, that would have banned private surgeryclinics, saying Martin would be more “flexible” on the issue. The primeminister has also hired former Hill & Knowlton B.C. lobbyist Bruce Young —well-known for his work with the Coalition for Healthcare Options, a groupof private surgical and diagnostic clinics that promote privatizedmedicare — as a senior campaign operative there. And Martin also hasrecruited former Alliance MP Keith Martin who, just days after joining theLiberals, enthused: “The exciting thing on health care is that Paul Martin(has not said) he's going to be wedded to the Canada Health Act.”

All the shadow-boxing between Harper and Martin aside, both sing from thesame hymn book, and they know it. Indeed, Martin probably could not haveaccomplished his 1995 budget assault on universal medicare withoutconvenient pressure from the Reform Party. Harper, as Preston Manning'schief policy advisor, developed Reform's policy of “provincializing” healthcare, a euphemism for gutting the Canada Health Act. Manning and Harperrepeatedly blocked Reform constituency resolutions supporting universalmedicare, and instead promoted user-fees, extrabilling and privateinsurance.

As medicare was steadily eroded under Mulroney and Martin, Harper happilytook credit for Reform's assistance in the process. In a speech to theNational Citizens Coalition (NCC), which he later headed, Harper said:“Universality has been severely reduced. It is virtually dead as a conceptin most areas of public policy.”

As for the new Conservative leader's recent pledge on health care, there isnothing in it that precludes more private medicare, and he is stilldedicated to devolving even more power to the provinces. His complaint aboutbeing demonized on medicare would be more credible had he not been soconsistent for so long as an enemy of public health care. The NCC wasliterally founded as an attack organization against public medicare. It ranfull-page ads asking Canadians how they would like to have “your open-heartsurgery done by a civil servant,” warning that “More Canadians will die” ifthe Canada Health Act were implemented. When Harper says he was proud of theNCC, he presumably means pride in this decades-long attack on medicare,which continued right up until he took over as its president in 1997.

Any suggestion from Harper that he has suddenly embraced a key feature ofthe Canada that, in 2002, he called “a second-tier socialistic country,boasting ever more loudly about its... social services to mask itssecond-rate status,” can't be taken seriously. The Conservative leader andthe extreme right-wing advisors he has surrounded himself with, like TomFlanagan of the University of Calgary, are devotees of Margaret Thatcherand, like the lady herself, “not for turning.”

So there you have it, Martin and Harper, the tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee ofprivatized medicare. Or, as Tommy Douglas would have described them, theblack cat and the white cat. The mice had better pay close attention thistime around.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver-based writer. His latest book is Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?, published by James Lorimer Ltd. This column has previously appeared in The Winnipeg Free Press.


The Story of Mouseland and the black and white cats (as told by Tommy Douglas, 1944)

Mouseland was a place where all the little mice lived and played, were born and died. And they lived much the same as you and I do.

They even had a Parliament. And every four years they had an election. Used to walk to the polls and cast their ballots. Some of them even got a ride to the polls. And got a ride for the next four years afterwards too. Just like you and me. And every time on election day all the little mice used to go to the ballot box and they used to elect a government. A government made up of big, fat, black cats.

Now if you think it strange that mice should elect a government made up of cats, you just look at the history of Canada for last 90 years and maybe you'll see that they weren't any stupider than we are.

Now I'm not saying anything against the cats. They were nice fellows. They conducted their government with dignity. They passed good laws — that is, laws that were good for cats. But the laws that were good for cats weren't very good for mice. One of the laws said that mouseholes had to be big enough so a cat could get his paw in. Another law said that mice could only travel at certain speeds so that a cat could get his breakfast without too much effort.

All the laws were good laws. For cats. But, oh, they were hard on the mice. And life was getting harder and harder. And when the mice couldn't put up with it any more, they decided something had to be done about it. So they went en masse to the polls. They voted the black cats out. They put in the white cats.

Now the white cats had put up a terrific campaign. They said: “All that Mouseland needs is more vision.” They said: “The trouble with Mouseland is those round mouseholes we got. If you put us in we'll establish square mouseholes.” And they did. And the square mouseholes were twice as big as the round mouseholes, and now the cat could get both his paws in. And life was tougher than ever.

And when they couldn't take that anymore, they voted the white cats out and put the black ones in again. Then they went back to the white cats. Then to the black cats. They even tried half black cats and half white cats. And they called that coalition. They even got one government made up of cats with spots on them: they were cats that tried to make a noise like a mouse but ate like a cat.

You see, my friends, the trouble wasn't with the colour of the cat. The trouble was that they were cats. And because they were cats, they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.

Presently there came along one little mouse who had an idea. My friends, watch out for the little fellow with an idea. And he said to the other mice, “Look fellows, why do we keep on electing a government made up of cats? Why don't we elect a government made up of mice?” “Oh,” they said, “he's a Bolshevik. Lock him up!” So they put him in jail.

But I want to remind you: you can lock up a mouse or a man but you can't lock up an idea.


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