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Why the Liberals Should Be Campaigning on a Cure for Healthcare

09/01/2015 12:28 EDT | Updated 09/01/2016 05:59 EDT
Steve Russell via Getty Images
BRAMPTON, ON- AUGUST 25 - Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau campaigns during the Canadian Federal Election at the Embassy Grand Convention Centre in Brampton. August 25, 2015. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

During the past number of months campaigning for local candidates, Canadian politics has perplexed me for a variety of reasons, but one reason stands out the most.

Why is the Liberal Party not aggressively campaigning on a cure for healthcare? 

The Liberal platform is a grab bag of fine, progressive ideas. I like it. The deficit financing pledge, designed to stimulate a sluggish (if not recessionary) economy, is smart fiscal policy. 

But Justin Trudeau's attempts to make income inequality the cause célèbre have seemingly fallen flat, perhaps for the simple reason that Canada isn't the United States: we don't have what Bernie Sanders calls "the billionaire class," or at least we don't have as obvious and obnoxious a class. And, to put it mildly, Chyrstia Freeland is no Elizabeth Warren.

But it's the lack of any clear policy from any party on healthcare that truly perplexes me.

In the early summer, I thought we might get to focus on healthcare. The third-party group Engage Canada had a couple of TV ads about the Harper Conservatives' so-called $36-billion cut to healthcare funding. Now, that claim (as Professor Emmett MacFarlane has detailed here) is arguably a bit disingenuous. To cut a long story short, healthcare funding is increasing under the Tories, just not nearly as much as the provinces were initially promised, and improvements just aren't being realized. 

The semantic debate on when spending increasing by less equals a cut aside, what is clear is that healthcare remains a huge priority for most Canadians, if not the most important issue overall, according to public opinion polls and anecdotal evidence "at the doors." 

There is a compelling case to be made that the Tories aren't leading the country on healthcare.

Many Canadians, including especially in rural Canada, still lack a family doctor. Seniors in particular are worried about the cost of prescription drugs. Rural Canadians and seniors are core Tory voters, and healthcare is really the only obvious wedge issue to begin to pry these voters away from the Tories.

But healthcare isn't simply about appealing to Tory voters.

This month, the headlines record appeals from eminent physicians that we discuss healthcare innovations this federal election. A Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial argues, "The federal government seems to be trying to get itself out of the health care business. It cannot... Focused national strategies could make real strides toward addressing such problems, which are too big for many provinces to effectively cope with on their own."

Ontario cabinet minister Dr. Eric Hoskins made an attempt to foist a national pharma-care plan onto the national discussion in the spring, but that petered out. It should be revived. Fixing healthcare does not simply mean more federal funding: there is room for national leadership towards improving the system through innovation and best practices from other OECD countries, including a pharma-care plan.

No party is talking about healthcare in any serious way to date. The Liberals can fix that, and own the issue, with a clear, deliverable plan for pharma-care. The deficit-financing pledge gives Liberals the room to deliver, and the recent infrastructure announcement includes spending on "social infrastructure," such as affordable housing and potentially healthcare. With swing voters at a loss to decide this early in the writ whether they will vote Liberal or NDP, the Grits should clearly and boldly stake out progressive turf with a clear plan for healthcare improvements.

The NDP has shown that it can move to the centre on many economic issues, but, mindful of how their provincial leader in Ontario had her leftwing cannibalised by Premier Wynne's Liberals last spring when she moved to the right without offering progressives a reason to vote for her, the federal NDP has been sure to anchor its offering to progressive Canadians with a childcare pledged (details TBD) and fierce opposition to Bill C-51 (quite rightly). 

The Liberals have lacked a similar progressive anchor, and we've watched as the NDP has eaten our lunch over an ill-advised "I voted for it before I voted against it" approach to C-51.

Plus, Tom Mulcair backed up his recent insistence that he will somehow balance the budget despite a weak economy by delaying his previous pledge to restore the full funding to healthcare the Harper Conservatives ended. There's a huge opening here for Liberals to show their progressive bona fides at the expense of both the NDP and the Tories by owning the healthcare file.

Healthcare should be the Liberals' progressive marker. There's a lot of equity in the Liberal brand related to healthcare. It is time we own it again.

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