Toronto Star

November 19, 1999

Allan Rock isn't leader for future

By Chantal Hebert
Toronto Star

OTTAWA - FEDERAL HEALTH MINISTER Allan Rock was fast on his feet in the House of Commons on Wednesday, vowing he would cross swords with anybody who might think of tinkering with Canada's medicare system.

Rock's comments were aimed specifically at the government of Alberta, whose premier had used a TV address the previous evening to unveil plans to contract some of the province's health care out to private hospitals.

Short of poring over the fine print of Ralph Klein's announcement, it is impossible to ascertain whether Alberta's contemplated policy would make health care less publicly-funded, accessible and universal, a fact Rock did acknowledge in passing.

But, just because the minister does not know yet whether he is faced with a real danger, or is simply tilting at windmills, did not stop him from charging across the rhetorical battlefield.

Were it not for the rule that TV is to focus exclusively on whoever happens to have the floor, Commons cameras would have caught a number of Liberal MPs trying hard to wipe smirks off their faces as they listened to Rock.

With the possible exception of the set of a pirate movie, it is hard to think of a place, other than the Commons, where the audience is so quick to recognize sabre-rattling when it hears some. It is the stuff Question Period is made of and Rock's performance on Wednesday belonged in the Olympic gold category.

Rock, no shrinking violet when it comes to his leadership ambitions, just could not resist draping himself in the popular medicare flag. In the past, it has served both the public and federal politicians well.

But Rock's problem is that, under his watch, it is fast becoming a flag of convenience.

While the minister was busy working himself into a sweat for the cameras, cooler heads in a variety of provincial capitals were trying to get their hands on Klein's policy. While many dismiss Alberta's plan publicly, it will be the subject of much scrutiny privately. That is because new cracks in the medicare system are showing up on a weekly basis.

Over the past months, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have paid to have cancer patients treated in the U.S. - a sad comment on the length of waiting lists here at home.

Many Canadians would be willing to pay extra for health care

A poll released earlier in the week reveals that a growing number of Canadians would rather have the option of paying extra for care, instead of enduring the current situation.

Short of rethinking some of the fundamentals of the system, it may get worse before it ever gets better. Indeed, on Monday, the Quebec Hospital Association called for an urgent debate on whether the province could continue to offer its aging population top-notch medical treatment. Could and should Quebec, for instance, continue to offer hip-replacement surgery to 80- and 90-year-old patients? What about complex cardiac surgery?

Premier Lucien Bouchard's reaction to these questions was as predictably pre-emptive as Rock's. Bouchard angrily put a lid on the debate, describing it as unacceptable and restating his mantra - the problem with the Quebec system is the federal government's reluctance to share more of its growing budget surplus with the provinces.

But the Parti Québécois caucus is hearing a different tune from Health Minister Pauline Marois. She is said to have warned MLAs that without a structural change - one that may well include more private sector involvement - there is no way future provincial governments, including Quebec's, will be able to keep up with the growing health-care costs. At least, not if they want to invest in a host of other areas, such as higher education.

Earlier this year, the federal government and all provinces, except Quebec, signed on to a social union agreement. The purpose of the deal was to provide a framework within which such pressing issues could be thrashed out. And yes, it actually includes a conflict-settlement mechanism to deal with differences of opinion, such as the one that may be developing between Alberta and the federal government.

In the circumstances, a more thoughtful federal response would be to engage in the debate within the social union framework, rather than to utter bromides for the evening newscasts.

There are those who see Rock's leadership aspirations as a big plus in the current debate, assuming he is bound to have an added incentive to defend medicare vigorously.

Maybe so, but Rock's performance so far tends to show, on the contrary, that he may be a poor candidate for leading Canada into urgently needed and, probably, painful introspection on the future of the country's most cherished social program.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears in The Star on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Contents copyright © 1996-1999, The Toronto Star.