SPECIAL REPORT

Rock stands his ground

May 11 1998
SPECIAL REPORT

Rock stands his ground

May 11 1998

Rock stands his ground

Federal Health Minister Allan Rock has been on the firing line over the compensation package for those who contracted hepatitis C through tainted blood between 1986 and 1990. Late last week, Rock, who also endured controversy over the Airbus affair during his earlier tenure as justice minister, spoke to Maclean’s Ottawa Correspondent John DeMont about the federal-provincial offer. Excerpts from that interview:

Maclean’s: Could you elaborate on the positions of the provinces during the negotiations for the compensation package?

Rock: From the beginning, the provincial ministers as a group took the position that we should not go down the road of compensation at all because of where it would lead. Some spoke about waiting lists for surgery in their provinces. Others spoke about problems they have with children’s aid and compensation for their problems. Others talked about simply not being liable. But in the last days, Ontario and British Columbia said, ‘Oh well, not only should we do what is in this agreement—but Ottawa should also go beyond 1986.’ My reason for raising this is to point out the irony and the contradiction of people who had said no compensa-

tion for anybody because of the implications of it on their budgets. Maclean’s: What does the uproar say about the whole question of federal-provincial relations ? Rock: This particular incident is discouraging. I know that when the provinces speak to us they ask us, ‘Don’t act unilaterally. Don’t take us by surprise. Speak to us in advance of taking positions and remember we’re in this together.’ And yet this week, after the ministers in both Ontario and Quebec reaffirmed the agreement publicly, they reversed their po-

sition [after a conference call at week’s end, all provinces, with the exception of Quebec, subsequently expressed support for the package]. Maclean’s: Was there ever a moment when you felt there should be full compensation ? Rock: In the summer of last year when we started into this file, I don’t think I knew

enough about the history to draw distinctions and categories. I was aware there were people who were infected by reason of blood and wanted to look into it and learn more—we wanted to open a dialogue. Over the whole period, I have looked for what is the role of government. One role, both for provinces and the federal government, is to make sure we keep a good strong health-care system providing services people with hepatitis C need. Another role of government is responsibility—if someone got harmed because of someone not doing their job, then to face up to that. The more I examined these different concepts, I came to the conclusion that governments can help in different ways. Maclean’s: How will the $1.1-billion package be parcelled out? Rock: There are discussions going on between lawyers at the moment and I think it’s best to leave it to them. I don’t think we see the process as something which is dividing the number of dollars. It’s more of an idea that it will be a fund available for

The minister of health says the package is fair those who have problems with their health affecting their income. Maclean’s: Are you surprised the issue has stayed alive for so long? Rock: I think it’s fair to say that all the ministers of health expected that it was going to be a controversial decision and a difficult period. It’s remained prominent for a number of reasons over the last few weeks. The opposition has focused on this and this alone. We have a situation where all the opposition parties take the same position on the same issue. It doesn’t often happen. We

expected it to be controversial and difficult. But that’s why we took so much time coming to the conclusion. Maclean’s: You seem to attract controversy. Rock: Justice and health are two of the most difficult and controversial portfolios— difficult issues that touch people’s lives, about which people can feel strongly and emotionally. I think it’s impossible to deal

with the agenda in either department without touching on controversy. Health is a portfolio that has a lot of items on the agenda that are important to people.

Maclean’s: What will the fallout be from this roller-coaster week ? Rock: The opposition parties are doing what they’re doing for political purposes. I find that when I speak to people and I explain why we are offering compensation to some and not others, they understand. When I explain that some people are getting compensation because they got sick because somebody didn’t do their job, they can accept it to an extent. But if you offer it to everybody who got sick, then where do you stop? Medicare is not there to pay those people but to treat them. That’s what we want to do. I also can tell you it was quite clear that one side is easier to argue than the other. But it doesn’t mean it’s the more appropriate decision. It doesn’t mean it’s the right decision or the correct decision. □