“There’s only two people in your life you should lie to,” Jack Nicholson once said, “The police and your girlfriend.”
He was kidding. I think.
Were all politicians to begin living by Jack’s creed, it would be a reformation unparalleled among the legions of sinners come to repentance. For too many of that class, lying seems to come as naturally as breathing.
Consider, for instance, the whopper trotted out by Health Minister Tyler Shandro in the Alberta legislature earlier this month: “There was no fight with the Alberta Medical Association.”
Delivered hard on the heels of the epic battle Mr. Shandro has been waging with Alberta’s doctors, it was a nose-stretcher for the ages — Pinocchio’s schnozz was a dimple by comparison.
He picked that fight with physicians in the fall of 2019, obeying the orders of his boss, Premier Jason Kenney. Kenney isn’t much of a truth-teller himself: he signed a “Public Health Guarantee” (with cameras rolling) in order to get elected, and then promptly ignored that pledge once the keys to the premier’s office were in his grasp.
One might have expected that when Covid-19 came along, Mr. Shandro would desist from his assault on the medical profession; that he would comprehend the foolhardiness of waging war on doctors in the midst of a pandemic.
But no. Quite the opposite. He doubled down, denigrating and disrespecting physicians at every turn — going so far as to berate a doctor in public, in that doctor’s driveway and in front of his family.
In his most despicable act, Mr. Shandro flipped doctors the ministerial bird by ripping up the legal contract they had with government.
And what, you might ask, have doctors done in return? How have they repaid the minister’s blitzkrieg on their profession?
I’ll tell you what they did: they went to work, day after day after day, serving their patients in the teeth of the Covid pandemic. They held true to the oath they took when they became doctors.
It’s not that they were heroes. They were no more heroes than the grocery store clerks, long term care aides, nurses, police officers, meat-packing plant workers and so many others who stepped up to keep essential services afloat for our citizens. They simply did their duty.
Due to the inefficiencies and complexities of delivering care during the pandemic, many doctors suffered a 30 to 40% cut to their gross incomes over the past year; after paying staff and overhead expenses there wasn’t much left over. Many practices have been left hanging on by the slimmest of threads.
Despite all that, when the call went out in recent weeks for doctors to sign up to help run vaccination clinics, they signed up by the hundreds — to volunteer. Why, you ask? Because doctors put their patients first.
It’s a concept that is alien to a host of politicians; politicians who tend to put themselves first rather than their citizens (those who don’t seem as rare as black swans — they exist, but you can easily live your entire life without coming across one).
None of the above is to suggest that doctors have said nothing about their mistreatment at the hands of this government. They’ve spoken up with alarm, loudly and repeatedly and insistently; but they may as well have been shouting into hurricane-force winds for all the good that it’s done.
So toxic had the relationship between doctors and government become by last July that 98% of Alberta’s doctors voted “no confidence” in the Minister. Yet according to him there was “no fight” with doctors.
It’s no surprise, given this sort of behaviour, that the United Conservative Party is in big trouble, so far behind in the polls that if an election were held today NDP leader Rachel Notley would sweep to a majority mandate. It’s an unfathomable outcome for a united conservative movement in the province of Alberta (the reason Ms. Notley became premier in 2015 was thanks to the conservative vote splintering between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wild Rose Party).
The UCP’s deep unpopularity, and the prospect of crushing defeat at the ballot box two years from now, is almost certainly the motivation behind the “olive branch” Mr. Shandro extended last month to doctors: he finally agreed to a tentative new deal with the Alberta Medical Association.
I can’t say much here about this new proposal. It’s up for a vote by physicians, and the AMA has asked doctors to refrain from discussing the details in public. I’ll hold to that, except to say that it’s hardly the Magna Carta.
To say that doctors are suspicious of the Minister’s motives is a gross understatement — on par with suggesting that Alberta’s winters are a tad chilly. The overwhelming initial impulse on the part of most doctors in response to the tentative accord was to tell the dark lord of Shantasia to take a flying leap into a lake of molten lava.
Entering into any agreement with this government at this point seems, on the face of it, about as sane as Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining… as in, completely nuts.
But there is a case to be made that saying “no” to this deal may be crazier still.
One of my defiant colleagues — who plans to vote “no” — quoted William Wallace in Braveheart:
“Fight and you may die. Run and you will live at least awhile. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!”
I get it. That sentiment resonates deeply with me, too. The best way to deal with a bully, after all, is to stand up to him.
But when you’re getting mugged, when your life (in the current case, our profession) is in danger, sometimes the smart thing to do is to negotiate with your attacker, to pacify him, to try to buy time until help arrives.
Early on in Braveheart, young William declares, “I can fight!” To which his father, Malcolm, retorts: “I know. I know you can fight. But it’s our wits that make us men.”
Perhaps that applies here. We too can fight. But it’s our wits that make us doctors.
If we cede this battle, but keep our wits about us, perhaps we’ll win the war — for ourselves, and for our patients.
For the record, I haven’t yet decided how I’ll vote. But if I allow myself to dwell, even for a moment, on the shameful way this Minister has dealt with doctors during his tenure, the urge to register a resounding “NO!” boils forth like the aforementioned lava.
Many of my colleagues will hold their noses and vote yes in the hopes of obtaining some measure of stability and a degree of certainty for themselves and for their patients.
Perhaps that’s the right thing to do. I don’t know.
Perhaps the Minister will turn over a new leaf and treat doctors henceforth with the respect they deserve.
Pinocchio eventually learned to stop lying on his way to becoming a real boy.
Perhaps Mr. Shandro will learn to stop lying; perhaps he’ll become a real Health Minister.
But this is no fairy tale. This is real life. And the fiction he spooled out in the legislature a couple of weeks ago doesn’t fill me with great hope.
One thing is for certain: if this deal is rejected by Alberta’s doctors, the blame will rest squarely on the Minister’s shoulders, and on his alone.