St. Anne? Give me a break!

If you were in Edmonton during the week or two before Christmas you can be forgiven for thinking that some miraculous change had transformed Alberta's political landscape.

The headlines in city papers proclaimed the happy news: a saviour had arisen who would lead the west out from the wilderness. Westerners - and Albertans in particular - would finally enjoy real power at the centre of the Canadian universe! Hallelujah!

The agent of this wonderful change was none other than Anne McLellan - former federal health minister and Liberal MP for Edmonton West. And the occasion for celebration, of course, was the decision by newly-minted Prime Minister Paul Martin to name McLellan as his second-in-command.

Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan! And minister of post Sept. 11 overkill ( er& I mean national security) to boot! Cue the trumpets!

You'll forgive me if I don't join the chorus in praise of St. Anne.

You see, I'm one of thousands of left-of-centre Albertans who have watched McLennan's career over the past decade. And to put it bluntly, it has been a huge disappointment.

It wasn't always thus.

I remember back in 1994 when McLellan was making her first bid for election in Edmonton West. Many people who I respect were excited about her campaign.

She's a top professor at the U of A's law faculty, they told me. She's progressive. She's a feminist. She's savvy. Caring. Tough.

I have to admit, it all sounded good at the time. In a province where the forty or so percent of the population that doesn't support the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives is routinely denied representation by the vagaries of our first-past-the-post system, the prospect of electing a "social Liberal" in the Trudeau-Pearson mold was pretty appealing.

Ten years later, there are still some people - many of whom should know better - spouting the "Anne as Progressive" line. The problem is, we're still waiting for evidence.

Anne in Action

Political junkies in Alberta are familiar with McLellan's story. After winning a razor-thin victory in the 1994 general election, McLellan - as one of only a handful of western Liberals - was quickly brought into the Chretein cabinet: first as Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, then as Justice Minister, and most recently as Health Minister.

By virtue of these lofty postings, McLellan became a member of the federal government's inner circle. Despite all the current hoopla about her newest job in the Martin cabinet, the truth is that McLellan has been one of the most powerful and influential Liberals in the country for the past decade. The question is: what did she do with that power? The answer, unfortunately is: not much.

In fact, for all those who believed she would be a beacon of liberal light in a sea of mean-spirited Reform-Alliance darkness, McLellan has proven to be worse than a "do-nothing": she has often ended up supporting the very conservative politicians and policies many people thought she had been elected to oppose.

If you doubt this assessment, let's take a look at her record in three key areas: civil liberties, the environment and health care.

The War on Civil Liberties

Anne McLellan had the dubious honour of being Canada's Justice Minister during the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

At the time, there was tremendous domestic and international pressure on the government to enhance the security of Canadians and make it more difficult for would-be terrorists to operate in the country.

Given this atmosphere, politics dictated that McLellan had to do something in support of the so-called "war on terrorism": the question was, what?

Unfortunately, McLellan opted for legislative changes that lean more towards the American-style heavy-hand than towards traditional Canadian-style moderation.

The two anti-terrorism bills that McLellan produced - Bill C-36 and Bill C-35 - can best be described as draconian. In the eyes of many, the new laws' broad definitions of "terrorism" essentially act to criminalize legitimate dissent. And they profoundly undermine the rights and civil liberties of Canadian citizens - especial those who have the misfortune of sporting Arabic sounding names or who happen to have been born in Middle Eastern countries.

Significantly, it wasn't only progressives and activists who thought McLellan had gone too far. The list of those vehemently opposed to the new anti-terrorism laws also included such established groups as the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the citizen oversight committee for CSIS.

Today, Canada's anti-terrorism is in place - and some observers say it is at least as much of a challenge to civil liberties as the much reviled Patriot Act in the U.S. The question for supporters of Anne McLellan is this: what happened to her vaunted "progressive" values? And when, exactly, did appeasing the current hard-right administration in Washington become more important that preserving the democratic freedoms of ordinary Canadians?

Kyoto Lite

The next item on the list of "Most disappointing moments" for Anne McLellan came during the debate on the Kyoto Accord.

It was the fall of 2002 and Prime Minister Jean Chretein was finally showing some interest in implementing a "social-Liberal" agenda before stepping down. One of the main components of that agenda was, of course, action on global warming through support of the Kyoto Accord.

Poll after poll at the time showed that Canadians overwhelmingly supported the Accord. People understood the issue of global warming and they saw Kyoto as the first step in dealing with the problem.

Even here in Alberta, the majority of people backed Kyoto. In fact, the only two groups of any note that opposed the deal were the Calgary-based energy industry and members of the Klein government.

And who did McLellan side with in this debate? Did she honour the wishes of own constituents? Did she support the position staked out by her own government?

Unfortunately, the answer to these last two questions is 'no.'

Instead of standing behind the Prime Minister who appointed her and fighting for a policy that the majority of Canadians clearly supported, McLellan chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Klein government and their patrons in the energy industry.

To make matters worse, McLellan broke ranks just as the Kyoto debate was reaching a crescendo. And she didn't just choose to abstain from the vote on Kyoto implementation. She threatened to resign unless the government essentially exempted the energy industry (one of our countries biggest producers of greenhouse gases) from Kyoto targets.

Eventually, the federal government decided to go ahead with its plans for Kyoto - and McLellan voted in favour of a watered-down version of the bill to implement the deal. However, there can be no doubt that McLellan's intervention took a great deal of wind out of Kyoto's sails.

Most alarmingly, McLellan's views on Kyoto seems to be very similar to the views held by new Prime Minister Paul Martin. With these two in charge, the likelihood of any meaningful action towards reducing the emission of greenhouse gases seems to have been greatly reduced.

Score one for the oil barons.

Medicare's missed opportunity

Anne McLellan's track record on the Kyoto Accord and terrorism is highly questionable - and it certainly earns her a place on the list of "Most Conservative" Liberal cabinet ministers ever. But those are not the things that people are most likely to remember her for. Instead, if she is remembered at all, it will be as the Health Minister who missed the chance to save Medicare.

It was on her watch, after all, that Roy Romanow delivered his sweeping and widely praised report on the future of health care.

After touring the country, examining health systems from around the world and talking to literally thousands of experts and ordinary Canadians, Romanow concluded that Medicare was worth saving. And he said that the best way to save it was by keeping it public.

In many ways, Romanow made it easy for McLellan and our country's ten provincial premiers. He gave them a detailed and workable road map for reform. And, thanks to his tireless touring, he helped build the political momentum to do big things: Canadians overwhelmingly supported his vision and were willing to get behind major reforms.

But did McLellan take advantage of the ideas and the opportunity handed to her by Romanow? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

More than a year has passed since the Romanow report was released and only one of its major recommendations (the creation of a national health council) has been implemented. All the other recommendations - on things like Pharmacare, primary care reform and rural health care - are all but forgotten.

Obviously, the Premiers (especially conservative Premiers like Ralph Klein and B.C.'s Gordon Campbell) have to shoulder much of the blame for the failure of governments to embrace the Romanow roadmap.

But, as the federal Health Minister, Anne McLellan could have played a leadership role. She could have used the wide public support for the Romanow report as a tool to pressure the Premiers into action.

But she did none of that. In fact, it can be argued that McLellan's interventions actually encouraged the Premiers to reject Romanow. For example, she was quoted saying that private delivery of health services might actually make sense - contrary to all the evidence presented in Romanow's report. And she also made a point of praising Alberta's blueprint for health reform - the controversial Mazankowski report - even though it pointed in an entirely opposite direction from Romanow.

Based on her performance, it's not unreasonable to conclude that McLellan never really wanted Romanow's recommendations implemented - even though most other Canadians did. And it's also not a stretch to argue that her policy of benign neglect played a big role in smothering the Romanow baby in its crib.

Better than a Reformer?

Despite McLellan's track record, there are still left-leaning voters in Alberta who will say: better Anne than an Alliance-Conservative candidate. That's the argument that was used to such great effect by McLellan's camp during the federal election when Stockwell Day was used as the boogie-man of choice.

But you know what? Based on her performance over the past few years - and especially her shocking and profoundly disappointing record on health care, the environment and civil liberties - I've become convinced that a back bench Alliance-Conservative MP would actually have been preferable. Why? Because, they likely wouldn't be any more conservative than Anne has been - and, as opposition outsiders, they almost certainly would have done less damage.

In the end, what's the lesson in all this? It's that we should judge politicians on their actions, not on some misty-eyed nostalgia about the past of their party or on the rhetoric of their followers.

By any measure of her actual record, Anne McLellan fails the "progressive" test. She is a (reactionary) wolf in (liberal) sheep's clothing.

Worse than that, her record suggests that the new government under Paul Martin will be one of the most conservative we've seen in Ottawa for years. So brace yourselves everyone - with Paul and Anne in charge we're about to start a rocky ride back to a more conservative future.

Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff
January 2004

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