ON THE ISSUES

A PATRONAGE EPIDEMIC

Mary Janigan June 14 2004
ON THE ISSUES

A PATRONAGE EPIDEMIC

Mary Janigan June 14 2004

A PATRONAGE EPIDEMIC

ON THE ISSUES

The nasty war over where to locate a new public agency could put our health at risk

Mary Janigan

YOU ONLY HAVE to glance at the garrulously upbeat announcements about Ottawa’s new public health agency to grasp how politics contaminated its very creation. When the feds loftily proclaimed in mid-May that the new agency would somehow have homes on “two pillars” in Winnipeg and Ottawa, with its primary location in Winnipeg, they also cranked out a series of jargon-laden regional releases. Five regions, from Atlantic Canada to B.C., were decreed hosts for “national collaborating centres.” Those health centres would work with the conveniently sundered Public Health Agency of Canada, contributing reports on everything from risk assessment to health determinants. As the Liberals saw it, everyone won.

We can only hope. But nothing was supposed to be this way. Ottawa opted to create the agency after a report last fall from the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health. With icy clarity, the report noted that more than 30 previously unknown diseases caused by viruses or bacteria have emerged since 1973. Then, after listing deficiencies in the handling of last year’s SARS crisis, it called for a separate federal agency that would swallow the existing public health branch—and build links with provincial and local health authorities. “SARS has illustrated that we are constantly a short flight away from serious epidemics,” it warned.

Ottawa’s initial response was superb.

The March budget shifted public health funds to the new agency—and added an extra $165 million over the next

Winnipeg, agency insiders believe, got the nod as part of the difficult effort to woo mayor Glen Murray to run for the Liberals

two years. Senior Liberals insisted the process would be even-handed: Public Health Minister Carolyn Bennett would determine the agency’s location.

Then the lobbying began. Treasury Board President Reg Alcock wanted its headquarters in his Winnipeg hometown. Liberal Senate leader Jack Austin lobbied for Vancouver. Appalled, Ontario backed the Toronto Region Research Alliance, which argued the headquarters should be in Ottawa—but tap the expertise of its universities, teaching hospitals and research institutes based from Guelph to Toronto.

The situation disintegrated. Meanwhile, Liberal operatives were wooing Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray as a star candidate. It was a difficult, drawn-out negotiation: insiders to the agency decision darkly allege that his consent was linked to Winnipeg getting the nod. But that win is now bittersweet. Manitoba officials are privately complaining that few jobs will relocate. Health Canada officials in Ottawa have been told that no one will move. Loser B.C. got two collaborating centres: for Aboriginal and environmental health. And Ontario officials, who kept quiet because the PMO said few jobs would move, are fuming: they fear jobs will shift despite Ottawa’s vows—and they’re furious that

Ontario’s pivotal expertise is being tapped for only a collaborative centre on “infrastructure, info-structure and new tools development.” Whatever that means.

So what have we learned? Ontario Liberal Ross McGregor, a volunteer advocate for the Toronto alliance, is lethal: “It is an example of our insistence on regional equity at any cost.” Or, patronage usually trumps policy. What we do not yet know is how this unseemly display will affect public health if an epidemic erupts. lifl

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com