How many Conservative Party members cast their ballots for Maxime Bernier ahead of this weekend’s leadership convention without knowing his central health care policy would render the cherished Canada Health Act unenforceable?
I don’t know, but I imagine it’s more than nought, and the headline “Could Maxime Bernier kill universal health care?”—which appeared last week at Maclean’s—is likely to be provoking a few double takes. I’ll also wager it’s all producing a healthy round of high-fives inside the Prime Minister’s Office.
This being politics, let’s leave aside the merits of the argument. Only a fool would argue everything is tip-top when it comes to Canadian health care. The question is whether it’s foolish for a self-professed small-government libertarian who trades by the name “Mad” Max Bernier to try to lead the change the system needs.
The answer is “yes.”
There are some files for which a political party just isn’t trusted on motive. For Conservatives, health care is one of them. Stephen Harper wanted nothing to do with health care so badly he simply slapped an extension on Paul Martin’s health care transfer growth and called it a day.
Harper also added a wait-times guarantee for certain medical procedures to his 2006 platform, but it certainly wasn’t what won him the vote. Conservatives win despite health care, not because of it.
And it certainly didn’t feel like a political winner when the Harper government eventually chose in 2011 to continue with 6 per cent increases to 2016-17 before limiting the increase of federal health transfers to 3 per cent or nominal GDP growth, whichever was higher.
The move was a real risk to the Conservative brand. The savvy move was to tie the change to the health of the economy, an issue where the Conservatives in general, and Harper in particular, were trusted.
In hindsight, the saving grace on health was that the provinces weren’t told in advance and the change was presented as a fait accompli. The premiers knew Harper wouldn’t bend, and with its decision, the government had deprived them of a platform from which to make the case for more.
This is probably the thinking motivating the Bernier pledge. Put the onus on the provinces, give them the tax points, and prod them on service standards if they don’t deliver. Take a landmine off the federal plate and divvy it up across the provinces and territories.
There are several problems with this approach. First: the provinces now know it will be coming. Expect the Council of the Federation to be ready to fire back. Second: Canadians love their health care, to the point of irrationality. It’s a part of our national identity—foolishly so, one could argue. But that brings us to the third problem: the Bernier campaign hasn’t done enough positioning of the problem to make their proposed solution inevitable, to say nothing about making it politically palatable.
Talking up the problem is the critical part of political communication. If voters don’t know there’s a problem they won’t see the need for a solution. Good politicians identify the problem, ascribe motive to themselves for wanting to solve the problem, highlight their solution, and then call on others to support the solution, having carefully mapped out supportive stakeholders in advance.
Indeed, Bernier has done plenty of this on another potentially contentious pledge: to scrap Canada’s supply management system. And it was certainly the approach the Harper government took when it embarked on another dangerous pledge: raising Canada’s retirement age, an action that has been stupidly undone by the current Trudeau government.
Ahead of the retirement age announcement, we started to highlight the fact that Canada’s then current (and now restored) retirement policy was constructed when there were six to seven workers for every retiree and life expectancy post-retirement was a fraction of what it now is.
With the current three-workers-to-one-retiree ratio being further reduced to two-to-one by 2030, while life expectancy pushes ever further outward from retirement age, the case for action became clear, even obvious. Fixing it, we explained, was critical to the country’s long-term economic prosperity. As a result of our efforts, the criticism of the policy change was muted, and certainly nothing close to the firestorm for which we had prepared.
Now, if a politician doesn’t talk up the problem and ascribe motive to themselves for fixing it, their opponent usually does it for them. The Liberals will undoubtedly use the Bernier pledge to prove what they’ve been (falsely) saying about Conservatives for years: that they can’t be trusted to defend the Canada Health Act. Bernier can’t wiggle away from that now that his campaign has conceded his policy would render the Act unenforceable.
It’s both an unforced error and the Maxime Bernier way. He’s not in politics for piecemeal change; he wants to swing for the fences. His platform for the Conservative leadership is admirably full of big policy ideas. The question becomes how many fights he wants to pick, and on how many fronts.
But if Maxime Bernier doesn’t lay out more of his thinking for changing one of Canada’s policy third rails, he’ll be the one who gets a shock at the ballot box.
Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.