It’s often said that a week is an eternity in politics. That certainly applies to the history of federal funding for health care in Canada.
This past Monday, December 19th, as health ministers exchanged angry words in Ottawa, almost no one seemed to notice that it was in fact the 50th anniversary of the adoption of medicare as a nationally cost-shared program. Despite the fact that he never had a majority in parliament, in 1966 Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson managed to get approval for a bill that allowed Ottawa to provide major funding to all provinces that were establishing health care along the lines of what Tommy Douglas had already done in Saskatchewan.
The objective, although never stated in so many words, was to have 50% of the cost of health paid for with federal dollars. As we were loudly reminded by the Premiers this week, that goal has never been achieved, and it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. In Manitoba where I live, the province says the feds barely cover 19% of the cost.
What a different time it was when the man known as ‘Mike’ lived at 24 Sussex. Television provided live coverage when Ottawa and the provinces met, and there appeared to be a remarkable spirit of ‘nation building’ at work. Since the very beginning, it has been more or less assumed that big federal dollars would ensure that health services would be basically the same across the country.
The spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’ began to change almost immediately after Pearson retired and was replaced by that guy named Trudeau. He made no secret of the fact that he regarded the premiers as ‘nobodies’, and he was a major force in encouraging separatism, not only in Quebec but out west also. I also wonder why it’s been so easy to forget that Paul Martin was a major architect of the crisis in health care funding.
Remember Paul, ‘slayer of the federal deficit’ as minister of Finance under Jean Chretien? He ‘downloaded’ hundreds of millions onto the provinces, and the balance sheets have never recovered.
Now we have Trudeau the younger, and where does it go from here I wonder?
I’m Roger Currie