Partisanship, austerity behind health deal sellout?

The health funding side deal got a rough ride elsewhere in the country over the holidays, but a relatively mild reception here. Manitoba’s health minister called the pre-Christmas bilateral deals between Ottawa and Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick “shameful.” The Canadian Health Coalition called New Brunswick “the grinch that stole a national health accord.”

Locally, Nova Scotia’s opposition leaders did the pro forma denunciations. Conservative Jamie Baillie said Premier McNeil “signed away a lot of hope” with the side deal, and NDP Leader Gary Burrill called it “weasely.” But a seniors advocate gave the double cross a thumbs up, opining that “half a loaf is better than none…we need the money now.”

Reporters at the legislature scrummed McNeil about abandoning the argument for a demographic top up, but were stonewalled by his customary obfuscation. Even though the side deal provides federal cash on a per-capita basis, with nothing extra for provinces with older populations, McNeil insisted the fact that it was partly targeted to home care took care of his demographic concerns.

As reported by the Canadian Press, McNeil said this:

“I’ve always said that any additional funding should reflect those demographic challenges and that’s what we’ve been able to achieve.”

The truth is, McNeil and his two co-conspirators achieved squat. The federal Liberal platform promised money for home care, which would have amounted to about $20 million a year for Nova Scotia. It should have started last year but didn’t.

The side deal fetched only $15 million a year for home care, supposedly starting in April, and $12 million for mental health. The extra money for mental health is certainly needed, but almost half ($5 million) came from the $20 million the Liberal platform had promised for home care.

So the “achievement” amounts to $7 million in new federal money – money with as yet undisclosed strings attached. In a health care budget of $4 billion, $7 million barely rates as the proverbial drop in the bucket. And in return for the pittance, the McNeil government:

  • Abandoned the case for a demographic top up, an argument once supported by six of the ten provinces;
  • Dropped the case for 25% federal funding of what we like to think of as our “national health care system.”
  • Shattered the provincial common front that has been pushing the 25% argument;

By wrecking the common front, McNeil and his Liberal counterparts in New Brunswick and Newfoundland are helping the federal government execute the tried and true divide and conquer manoeuvre. As provincial Liberal governments whose popularity is heavily dependent upon Justin Trudeau’s reflected glow, old-fashioned partisan politics is no doubt a factor.

And there is another possibility – the Liberals don’t want an influx of federal money to complicate its hard line approach to public sector wages. The government hasn’t said as much – no surprise there. But Bill Black, one of the Chronicle-Herald’s last columnists standing said it for the pro-austerity crowd.

In his weekly op-ed piece on Dec. 31 Black praises the deal because the  common front’s demand for no-strings attached increase of 5.2%  would allow public sector unions to “argue that the government could at a minimum add that amount to their pay packets.” Even better, according to Black, is the fact that with the increase targeted to home care and mental health it “cannot be diverted to fund pay increases in the broader public sector.”

Talk about cutting off the nose to spite the face.

With the argument for needs-based federal transfers abandoned, Nova Scotia’s only hope for improved health transfers rests with the provinces and territories still at the bargaining table. But even if their efforts produce some improvement in base funding beyond what the feds have already offered, this much is clear. Once again the McNeil Liberals have been bulldozed by the Liberals in Ottawa, and once again they put up excuses rather than resistance.

-30-

About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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