The plan to give more power to the Alberta Health Quality Council is just a broken promise with attitude
by David J. Climenhaga
Back on June 7 when she was running for Alberta’s top political job, Alison Redford got praise – and votes – for what seemed like a courageous decision to support a judicial inquiry into intimidation and mismanagement in Alberta’s public health care system under the Progressive Conservative government’s previous management.
Ms. Redford’s retreat from that position since she became premier has been disillusioning, to say the least. And the suggestion by her newly appointed Health Minister that the political problem she created with her promise can be handled by giving Health Quality Council of Alberta the power to conduct inquiries is risible.
There can be no doubt that many Albertans slapped down $5 to vote for Ms. Redford in the PC Party leadership election because they had concluded the only way to get to the bottom of whatever was going on in health care under the shaky hand of then-premier Ed Stelmach and the whip wielded by then health minister Ron Liepert was to hand the whole thing over to an independent and impartial judge.
When Ms. Redford added her voice to the call for a judicial inquiry to those of the Opposition parties, it almost seemed as if were possible the PC Party could renew itself.
In the event, as we all know, once she had the job, Premier Redford ran away from her promise faster than you could say “Ron Liepert is Minister of Finance.” This would be the same Ron Liepert who just before his re-appointment to cabinet was publicly rebuking the new premier for urging a judicial inquiry that inevitably would have poked around in what was previously his mismanaged bailiwick.
What happened between the powerful minister and his inexperienced new boss in those nine days is impossible to know, but easy to speculate upon.
As for the suggestion by current Health Minister Fred Horne that the HQCA, a provincial body set up to “promote patient safety and health service quality on a province-wide basis,” can oversee an “independent” inquiry, sorry, but that dog won’t hunt, in law or politics.
According to the Edmonton Journal’s story yesterday, Mr. Horne “elaborated on provincial plans to create a powerful Health Quality Council of Alberta that could oversee an independent judicial inquiry into health care.” (Emphasis added.)
But that’s simply not possible, even if you make the HQCA answer to the Legislature instead of the minister. This is true even if you give it the power to subpoena witnesses, as suggested by Mr. Horne.
So what? It’s still a provincial body under an all-powerful dynastic government that his been running things its way and only its way for more than 40 years. There’s no way on God’s green earth that such a body can be called independent, no matter how many press releases the government’s Public Affairs Bureau spins out.
That’s the thing about judicial inquiries. They’re run by judges who, once they are appointed, are independent of the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Those would be the cabinet and the Legislature if you happened to miss that Grade 10 civics class, people.
What’s more, do you seriously think any judge is going to agree to be part of an inquiry run by a body that answers to the Legislature? Unlikely. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but judges tend to be pretty jealous of their powers and independence – and it’s a good thing too, if you happen to be one of those Albertans who cares about living in a democracy.
Using judges to head commissions of inquiry is a bit of a grey area, constitutionally speaking. The judges’ independence and impartiality are constitutionally protected. The independence and impartiality of the commission itself, less so. Still, for most of us, knowing a judge will be leading an inquiry legitimately gives us confidence the inquiry itself will be independent and impartial too.
The HQCA, Mr. Horne said Monday, is “an independent body,” implying it’s independent like a court. Moreover, he said, under his scheme, HQCA members “will continue to operate independently.”
Maybe he imagines the HQCA can become some kind of quasi-judicial body like the Labour Relations Board – although to decide what is not clear. But any decisions the HQCA did make if it played such a role would have to be appealable to the courts – because the courts, of course, are impartial and independent.
Alas, too many Albertans have so little faith in our provincial government’s institutions, and with good reason, that Mr. Horne’s proposal is hard to view with anything but cynicism. Many people who feel this way were the same Albertans who took out a Tory membership and voted for Ms. Redford because they believed a judicial inquiry was required to get to the bottom of what’s gone wrong in our health care system. They trusted Ms. Redford to deliver on her promise.
Unfortunately, Mr. Horne’s scheme sounds like a way to stall the matter in the Legislature until the controversy goes away. And if the restructured HCQA ever actually gets around to looking into the alleged abuses in Alberta’s health care system, Albertans will be justified in fearing it is a tame provincial body whose meaningless reports would never tread on the toes of powerful ministers like Mr. Liepert.
If this is what happens to Premier Redford’s brave-sounding June 7 commitment, many Albertans who voted for her will be justified in feeling they have been betrayed.
That is why anything less than a judicial inquiry run by an independent judge is a broken promise. End of story.
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