Over the past several weeks, we’ve covered nearly a dozen different angles in the contract dispute between the Ontario government and the province’s increasingly disillusioned and frustrated doctors.
But there’s one thing we haven’t touched on: pure, partisan, brass-knuckles politics.
Perhaps lost in the shuffle of trying to figure out who’s on what side of the dispute are the partisan battle lines that this controversy is helping to create.
Back in 1986, the Liberal government of David Peterson tried to bring in a ban on extra-billing, the term used when doctors billed their patients directly and beyond what the negotiated fee schedule permitted. Many doctors became politicized over the issue, some even threatening to run for the opposition Progressive Conservatives in the ensuing election.
We’re now hearing echoes of that dispute with a new Liberal government as well. The reality of leading any intense fight against the government is that you end up all over the media: television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and of course Twitter and Facebook as well, which makes this dispute different from its 1986 predecessor. Public opinion moves at warp speed.
As a result, doctors such as Nadia Alam and David Jacobs now have the kind of profile that most rookie political candidates could only dream of. So it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether some doctors might decide to put their names on a ballot, given their newfound profile and interest in politics.
Alam, in particular, as one of the leaders of Concerned Ontario Doctors, would be quite a catch. She’s intelligent, passionate, and an effective communicator. And she would bring some added diversity to a legislature that is still more than 60 per cent male and more than 80 per cent white.
She has met with PC Leader Patrick Brown. So over e-mail I asked her: are you considering being a candidate in the 2018 election, given your interest and obvious skill in political organization?
“I don't know how good a mix politics and I would be,” she emailed back. “I'm passionate about democracy; about empowering and supporting those around me; about using a bottom-up approach to drive change. On the other hand, I have my lines in the sand that I will not cross. And politics requires a lot of compromise ̶ perhaps more than I can offer.”
That is certainly one of the realities of public life. As much as doctors may be furious at the state of health care in the province today, those who have their own practices do run their own shows, and don’t have to moderate their beliefs to satisfy a party position.
Again, if history is any guide, there were plenty of doctors in 1986 who became politically active after the extra-billing fracas. Many got involved in politics, raising money for the PC Party and knocking on doors during the 1987 election campaign. Some explored running for the PCs, but if memory serves, none did. Actually, I take that back ̶ only one did: Jim Henderson, a Liberal who opposed his government’s extra-billing ban, but successfully sought re-election anyway by a huge 13,000-plus vote margin.
Back then, no amount of engagement from disaffected doctors helped. Larry Grossman led the Tories to one of the party’s worst ever finishes, as Peterson’s Liberals won 95 out of 130 seats on their way to a massive majority government.
Obviously, the circumstances are different 30 years later. But it’s perhaps a cautionary tale for Brown, who has made a priority of reaching out to doctors in hopes of getting them onside for next time ‘round. But will any of those doctors actually run for him?
“Any doctor who is thinking of running should refer themselves to a psychiatrist,” says a longtime PC activist and senior party adviser who preferred anonymity. “Less money. More hassle. Crazy. If you are already rich and don't care about working after, go for it. If that's not the case, forget it.”
Moreover, says Alam, she wouldn’t know who to run for.
“I like the fiscal stewardship and accountability of the Conservatives, but I like the social progressiveness of the Liberals. So I'm not sure that there is a party for someone like me. Maybe I would be better off standing outside of the ring as critic and commentator.”
Furthermore, if Brown has indeed promised doctors binding arbitration to settle the dispute, as is suspected, there’s another reason to avoid politics and stay in medicine: you’ll make more money if Brown becomes premier.
“My duty is to my patients first and family second,” says Jacobs, a Toronto radiologist who has held a news conference at Queen’s Park and is a frequent presence on social media. “I don’t have the heart to push them into third place.”
So while the dispute with the doctors will no doubt continue to percolate over the ensuing months, perhaps the PC party shouldn’t get its hopes up that this controversy will deliver some potentially impressive new candidates.
It never seems to work that way.
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