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An alternative way of thinking comes to the Legislature

Alternative thinking on the rise with the ascent of Danielle Smith as UCP leader and Premier.
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What will Danielle Smith do about health policy and management, or her hints at involvement in a new Calgary arena--even municipal politics? Stay tuned, says political watcher. Photo: Facebook

Politicians can change or even reverse policies. They can adapt their speaking style, looks, and alliances. They find it exceptionally difficult to change their basic ways of thinking.

Premier Danielle Smith is firmly habituated to looking for what she calls alternative explanations, meaning reasons to distrust and attack anything she considers to be orthodoxy or the advice of technical experts.

Her mental habits lead her constantly toward highly suspect sources of theories and advice, and into ludicrous or dangerous positions. Saying that Alberta Health Services “manufactured” a staff shortage is only one of a spectacular and expanding list of crackpot notions.

That leaves many questions open until the election next May. The election outcome remains highly uncertain because the New Democrats have to: control their own extreme fringe; play down their association with federal party leader Jagmeet Singh; sell their own supporters on the need to prioritize economic policy; and, generally persuade people they are not like, for example, the self-righteous environmentalist vandals who throw soup or mashed potatoes at historic paintings.

One of the big questions is what the government will do about health policy and health system management after Smith finishes whatever purge and reorganization she has in mind.

Health Minister Jason Copping established three advisory panels several weeks ago on how to improve access to primary care in Alberta. The announcement didn’t make much of a stir but was important.

The panel on indigenous care will likely follow a predictable path. The panel on advice from national and international experts has too vast a field to cover by the reporting date of next spring; it will present either a general review of known work, or a cherry-picked summary to support preconceived conclusions.

The most interesting panel will look at “overall strategy.” That’s because it will be led by two physicians who have central roles in large multidisciplinary clinics. Those clinics’ funding is also based on patients rather than on the standard physicians' fee-for-service model. It’s reasonable to expect the panel will recommend establishing exactly that type of clinic, which is highly reminiscent of former premier Alison Redford’s proposal for family care clinics, across the province. Will the government be disposed to agree?

Another big question is whether Smith can keep her party and government more or less united.

She started by doling out rewards. She has appointed by far the largest cabinet in Alberta history, including a justice minister and an Edmonton-based deputy premier who are both in some disgrace. Internal patronage plus fear of losing the next election will apparently go a long way to getting people to accept whatever strange or distasteful statements come out of the premier’s office.

There’s the related question of what voters will accept. Smith has quickly moved to bread-and-butter issues to get people to ignore the irrational stuff. Voters should expect tax cuts or financial handouts within months. Significant signals are already being sent to key political regions. There may be loads of money for irrigation and a new arena complex for Calgary.

But Smith’s penchant for “alternative” thinking implies that she usually thinks she is right. That habit will apply to her cabinet and caucus colleagues as well as to the “experts” she publicly denigrates. Sooner or later there will be tension. Will that result in a public fracture? Or will dissenting cabinet ministers swallow their qualms the way most Republicans swallow anything from Donald Trump?

Then there is the question of how an unpredictable premier with no real experience in running anything will affect the province’s economy and budget policies.

Finance Minister Travis Toews had planned for a couple of years to have a major review of provincial revenues this fall. That idea may have gone by the boards. Will there eventually be a serious study of revenues? And will investors and skilled professionals be attracted to a province whose government occasionally lives in an alternative reality?

Mark Lisac watches politics for Alberta Prime Times. He writes novels too, including the recently published Red Hill Creek.