Canada

In need of a booster shot

The B.C. New Democrats may be on life-support

Chris Wood October 2 2000
Canada

In need of a booster shot

The B.C. New Democrats may be on life-support

Chris Wood October 2 2000

In need of a booster shot

Canada

The B.C. New Democrats may be on life-support

Chris Wood

For a few hours, it looked like one of the most remarkable revivals in Canadian politico-medical history. Returning from Ottawa bearing a scrip for $3 billion in federal transfusions for British Columbia’s ailing health system, Premier Ujjal Dosanjh summoned the legislature in Victoria to a rare one-day session to approve a further $290 million in immediate relief. The double dose of spending apparendy persuaded the B.C. premier that his New Democratic Party’s political health—dismissed for months by most observers as being on life-support—was on the mend. Promising to start “cutting cheques” the very next day, Dosanjh told reporters he was feeling, “Good. Very, very good.”

Good enough, in fact, that he might even call an election. “It could,” he hinted, “be any time.”

It could. But within days, speculation about a fall vote in British Columbia faded, driven out by devastating new data from the political equivalent of a diagnostics lab. Vancouver-based Angus Reid Group released a poll indicating Dosanjh’s party was not only in third place but had lost ground since he took over last February. According to Reid, only 19 per cent of decided voters now back the NDP—fewer than half the 48 per cent who say they would vote for its main opposition, the B.C. Liberals. Meanwhile, hopes for the healthcare system relapsed as more doctors walked away from their consulting rooms in rural centres and the govern-

ment scrubbed talks planned for this weekend with the British Columbia Medical Association.

But if his party’s return to robust health still seems far off, Dosanjh’s buoyant mood may not be entirely misplaced. Since taking over in Canada’s third most populous province, the 53year-old premier has put a stop to the self-inflicted political wounds that claimed his predecessor, Glen Clark. His personal popularity (at 59 per cent, according to Reid), leads that of the I Liberals’ Gordon Campbell by nine % points. If Dosanjh’s private goal is § something less than a third NDP term I —something closer, say, to preventing I his party’s obliteration, as some pundits 1 have been predicting—then he may even have reason to hope.

He does, at least, have a plan. Embarrassingly for the NDP, however, it was the party’s political opponents who disclosed it last week. Campbell’s Liberals handed out to reporters what they said was the governing party’s re-election strategy. A spokesman for the New Democrats subsequently confirmed the leaked document was genuine. It revealed a two-part playbook for winning the election Dosanjh must call by next June. One thrust would build on Dosanjh’s personal popularity, casting him as more trustworthy than Campbell and a clear break from Clark and the party’s first eight years in office. The rest of the NDP strategy is aimed at reconstituting its coalition of support from labour, environmentalists, women and multicultural groups. In past elections, they have delivered an irreducible core of more than 30 per cent of ballots cast in the province. These groups can now expect bonus packs from Victoria: union-friendly changes to the labour code, more parks, an “economic roundtable” for women and cash grants for ethnic community projects.

Meanwhile, Dosanjh appears to be counting on the emergency injection of more than a quarter of a billion dollars to tranquillize the province’s simmering health-care crisis until new federal funds begin to flow next April. In combination with earlier doses of provincial

Canada

The promise of a $40-million cheque for rural physicians did tittle to lessen the hostility they feel for Victoria

funding, the latest sums should more than eliminate what hospital administrators had warned was a looming $200million system-wide operating deficit for the current fiscal year. “Were very pleased with the new funding arrangements,” said Larry Odegard,

CEO of the Health Association of B.C., which represents the directors of most of the provinces health regions, hospitals and other health-care facilities. “There is real new value going into the system when this money flows.”

But whatever its longerterm effects, the cash infusion did little to soothe inflamed relations between the province and its doctors and nurses.

Shortages of both have forced even large hospitals in the Campbell: predictions of a Liberal sweep Lower Mainland to close operating rooms in recent months. Even tility between small-town doctors and

more acute shortages in smaller centres, especially of specialists, have sparked escalating protests among the overworked physicians still practising in those areas. “We have lost our kidney specialist and our plastic surgeon,” says Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid, a family physician in central Trail (population 8,000). “We could lose our anesthetist. If we lose our anesthetist, we can’t function.” A patchwork of provincial agreements, put in place to help some centres attract and keep doctors, has merely deepened the problems for communities not part of such deals. Last week, doctors in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek in the Peace River district of northeastern British Columbia, joined those in nine other communities who have withdrawn non-emergency service in recent weeks.

Among the cheques Dosanjh promised to write was one for $40 million for rural physicians. But MacDiarmid says the promise did nothing to lessen hos-

Victoria. “It’s worse,” she adds. Dosanjh’s $40 million is the same as the amount offered in a package the doctors rejected in August. “It won’t solve the problem,” says MacDiarmid. To compound her dismay, 48 hours before tabling its spending plans in the legislature, the government announced it was pulling out of the talks—scheduled to resume on Oct. 1—with the British Columbia Medical Association to work out a new master contract covering all doctors in the province.

Doctors are not the only health group the NDP has left dangling while it figures out its play. Nurses accuse the government of being deaf to their increasingly urgent calls for incentives to counter a severe shortage in their ranks. “We have a very corrosive atmosphere in the system,” says Odegard. As much as he welcomes new spending, “there is a lot of pent-up frustration the money will not address.”

Spending alone is unlikely to endear

Dosanjh to many British Columbians. The government insists it can cut cheques without incurring an overdraft, after what it claims is a second successive surplus provincial budget. But the party made the same claim for the two previous sets of books—claims later found to be false. And other demands on the chequing account have come to be regretted. Motorists passing the British Columbia Ferry Corp. docks south of Vancouver have been startled recently by the sight of something like a gargantuan beached white whale. In fact, it is only a white elephant being protected from the elements while it awaits a buyer. Beneath the tarp is the last of three high-speed ferries built at a cost of $463 million, and all promptly put up for sale at an expected deep discount. “Any government trying to repeat for a third time is going to have difficulties,” observes Angus Reid pollster Daniel Savas. “Dosanjh is fighting against two mandates that were troubled from both scandal and mismanagement.”

On the other hand, Savas concedes Dosanjh has a shot at salvaging something from his strategy. The B.C. economy is expected to grow by about three per cent this year. If it continues to pick up, and the premier can avoid any fresh political disasters, or eruptions of old ones (investigations continue into the actions of his predecessor, Clark), Savas thinks the NDP “might remain a solid opposition” after the next election.

University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff, however, sees a darker message for Dosanjh in Savas’s numbers. “There’s an assumption the NDP will bounce back,” he says, based on the party’s historic loyal “floor” of a third of B.C. voters. “The NDP floor may have shifted significantly downward.” If so, the party could be heading for a near-death experience. Campbell’s Liberals could sweep as many as 72 of the 79 seats in the legislature. “We’re looking at an alternative universe,” says Ruff. It is a universe where finishing a healthy second might begin to look “very, very good” indeed to Ujjal Dosanjh.