Hot! Harper’s medicare agenda isn’t hidden – if you look carefully

TheStar.com – news/canada
Published On Sat Jan 22 2011.    By Thomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist

Does Stephen Harper have a hidden agenda? I’ve long argued that the Conservative prime minister is relatively open about his long-term plans to make a Canada a more right-wing, decentralized, market-dominated country.

When Harper says, as he routinely does, that he supports medicare, I believe him.

But, as a growing controversy in Britain over the future of that country’s medicare system shows, the word “support” can mean many things.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government released plans for the most radical overhaul of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) since its inception 63 years ago.

Key to these plans are measures that will encourage the widespread privatization of public hospitals and other health services.

Critics – including the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association — argue that Cameron’s scheme could cripple the NHS which, like Canadian medicare, provides publicly-funded health services.

This week’s announcement comes three months after the government demanded that the NHS produce $32 billion in savings over the next three years.

All of this would be considered normal behaviour from a Conservative-led government except for one thing: Cameron won last year’s election on a very explicit pledge not to mess with the NHS.

In fact, he even used his own experience as proof. The NHS, he said, had been crucial for his son Ivan, who was born severely disabled and required expensive health care before dying at the age of six.

Britain’s public medicare system, Cameron said at one point, is “the thing I care about most, that my family values most.”

He pledged that the NHS would be exempt from any spending cuts.

Was he fibbing? Did the Conservatives have a secret plan to squeeze medicare?

The answer to both questions is: Not technically. But if Britons had paid more attention to the details of Cameron’s campaign statements, they would be less surprised today.

First, he promised only not to cut existing health spending. He made no pledge to let it grow in line with population and need.

Second, in the same speech in which he pledged his allegiance to universal health care, he promised to “get rid of . . . the bureaucracy” within the NHS – code words for privatization.

In short, Cameron’s agenda for British medicare wasn’t exactly hidden. But neither was it front and centre.

How does this compare to Canada and Harper?

Like Cameron, our prime minister says he is a big supporter of medicare. He brags that he and his family uses standard medicare doctors rather than the pricey executive clinics preferred by some politicians.

But at the same time, Harper’s Conservative Party platform contains important caveats.

It says provinces should have “maximum flexibility” to deliver health care. This is a hint that Conservative governments won’t be overly worried if provinces try to introduce two-tier care.

It also calls for “a balance” between public and private delivery. Currently, virtually all Canadian hospitals are public.

More to the point, it talks of limiting Ottawa’s use of the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction such as health.

If that platform promise were honored, medicare – a social program based upon Ottawa’s ability to withhold federal funds from provinces that don’t adhere to national standards – wouldn’t exist in its present form.

So, no. Harper’s agenda isn’t hidden — for health care or anything else. Like Cameron’s, it is all visible. You just have to look. Carefully.

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