By John Robson
Apparently the COVID pandemic has revealed the manifest deficiencies of our socialized medicine. We’ve endured massive lockdowns, including among the worst suspensions of in-person schooling anywhere, because of the shrivelled fragility of world-famous-in-Canada “medicare,” which must now be reformed… provided nothing changes.
My National Post colleague Kelly McParland just loosed what passes here for a broadside: “A memo must have circulated within the Ottawa pundit club, as suddenly there’s a rash of articles noticing that things aren’t as they should be in the venerated Canadian health-care system…” After quoting various statements, he added, “There aren’t enough nurses or other health-care staff, there aren’t enough beds, there’s not enough room in intensive care, we’re not equipped for surges or mass outbreaks, and years of budget pressures have left us vulnerable to unexpected events.” But “It’s not like we don’t spend the money. Health care spending tops provincial budget outlays. … We’re near the top in international tables of spenders…”
McParland then took the political pulse of the nation and found… nothing. “There’s been years of talk about raising taxes, cutting costs, switching priorities, rethinking orthodoxies or embracing innovation, to little effect. Nor are voters likely to respond positively to proposals for experiments with private medicine. … There might be a great theoretical case for it, but now’s not the time to launch it.”
Well, no. In Canada it never is. When our equivalent of a political giant, William Lyon Mackenzie King, died in 1950, frustrated social democratic poet F.R. Scott wrote, “He blunted us. We had no shape/ Because he never took sides,/ And no sides/ Because he never allowed them to take shape.”
Scott’s irritated masterpiece “W.L.M.K.” concluded, “Let us raise up a temple/ To the cult of mediocrity,/ Do nothing by halves/ Which can be done by quarters.” It’s all very clever, including “The height of his ambition/ Was to pile a Parliamentary Committee on a Royal Commission.” But it gives King too much credit.
Given Joseph de Maistre’s “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite”, Canadians must take a brickbat here because, as McParland said, it has long been clear that our public health care isn’t working. Indeed, it’s long been orthodox to say so provided you then insist that nothing be changed while reforming it.
Why, Paul Martin included a “fix for a generation” among his myriad top priorities back in 2004. But the fix was in on his fix; the feds would give provincial governments more money and pretend it didn’t all come from the same taxpayer, provided the provinces spent it on the same approach and pretended it wasn’t the failed same-old-same-old.
Scott also wrote of King, “He seemed to be in the centre/ Because we had no centre.” And Canadian public policy generally, and health care in particular, is hampered by this odd conviction that, being moderate as a kind of birthright, we can impose more radical restrictions on private health care than anyone other than Kim Jong-un and still claim the middle ground. (While chanting “your body your choice.”)
Formless, we cannot take sides. There isn’t a pro-market health-care camp and a pro-socialist one, no matter how often some of us cite Thomas Jefferson, wise in print though foolish and wretched in conduct, that “Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread.”
It sometimes feels as though I’ve been doing so since Mackenzie King died 17 years before the Medical Care Act was passed over half a century ago. Even the “updated” Canada Health Act straitjacket is now nearly four decades old and badly worn. Its approach would produce shortages in any area they were applied, and if abuse and inertia prevented debate they would persist for generations, and deep down we know it; nobody wants government supermarkets. Yet the CHA has bizarrely become sacred writ above even the charter, since its “Five Pillars of Waiting Lists” cannot be limited if “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” unlike mere free speech.
Must I really explain again that health care is no more zero-sum than bread-making, that encouraging effort and ingenuity brings plenty and suppressing them brings want in either, or anywhere? Perhaps, since we still tolerate milk marketing boards. And “medicare’s” dreary defenders still claim that if a doctor starts working “outside the system,” it means one less within.
Bosh. If a doctor stops collecting public fees, it frees up that money for a new graduate or new immigrant. Likewise, if we let someone “jump the queue” for private care, an expression we would not use if they switched grocery stores to avoid lousy service, it clears a space for the next person. But in Canada we cry “Reform if necessary, but not necessarily reform,” have no shape, no sides, and do nothing even by quarters.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of NTD Canada.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”