WHEN did it become OK for our leaders to lie to us? Why can’t we hold them accountable for failing to tell the whole truth? It’s exasperating, it’s counter-productive, it’s wrong, and yet it continues.

It begins in the daily question period when opposition members seek answers from government ministers who more often than not offer bland talking points that are designed to avoid answers. It’s too bad that Speakers don’t have the power to order ministers to “answer the question.”

Sometimes governments are caught unprepared, as were the federal Liberals when the developing PMO-SNC Lavalin story broke this week. Or when Ontario NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath revealed the existence of what certainly appears to be a Progressive Conservative government planning document to privatize more of the province’s health care.

This was never mentioned in the PC election campaign — a lie by omission.

It’s just a draft, countered Health Minister Christine Elliott, as if a draft isn’t the first step to an end result.

The plan would create a “super agency” to replace a variety of agencies including LHINs and Cancer Care Ontario and assume overall management of health care across the province. We know all too well that centralization usually sidelines the North.

Horwath says the plan would introduce a new model of care delivery, called MyCare groups, which would outsource services such as laboratories, many of which are already privately run, air ambulance, quality improvement, patient relations, digital health and tissue donation and transplants.

Health care bureaucracy can use a shakeup but Elliott hasn’t been clear on whether Ontarians will be paying directly for more services or have more of those services privatized under OHIP.

“We are committed to our public health-care system,” the minister said at a hastily called news conference following Horwath’s revelation of the confidential document leaked to the NDP by someone inside the government. (A bureaucrat has since been fired and police called to investigate.) But Elliott repeatedly refused to offer a firm “no” to questions about whether more privatization is on the way.

Horwath then released a second set of leaked papers, “internal government documents” that she said appear to be government presentations, and include references to cabinet approving the plan and appointing members to the new board.

The documents make the case for the new agency that “has the competency and capacity to effectively partner with public and private-sector entities.” That could mean many things.

Why would a government staffer take the consequential step of releasing these documents if this wasn’t the fundamental change in health care that it appears to be? Someone in the know was worried enough to risk their career in order to alert the public. But is Elliott selling us a false bill of goods, or is Horwath exaggerating the contents of these documents for political advantage?

One aspect of PC health-care initiative that will stun Northerners is the apparent revelation that “hallway medicine” exists. This term entered political lexicon during the 2018 election but it’s been a fixture of Northwestern Ontario health care for decades where it’s called “gridlock.” For months at a time Thunder Bay’s regional hospital will see patients on stretchers in hallways, alcoves and lounges because there are no beds for them.

The document leak came as the premier’s special adviser on health care released a report saying that “tough decisions” will be required to address hospital overcrowding. A government survey found that 41 per cent of people who went to the emergency department could have been treated by their primary care doctor. (How many people can see their physician on such short notice?)

Eliminating “hallway health care” will require dealing with other areas where people get treatment according to Reuben Devlin, who is heading up the premier’s council on health care changes. That’s hardly a revelation.

In 2001, then Liberal MPPs Lyn McLeod and Michael Gravelle were pestering then Conservative health minister Tony Clement about hospital “gridlock” in Thunder Bay. The Northwest LHIN held public consultations to seek ways to fix it. The problem was easily identified — not enough long-term care and nursing home beds for an aging population forced into acute care hospital beds to wait.

Now Ford is ostensibly seeking answers to a question that’s been answered since well before he entered politics. This is a lie of avoidance. It’s political theatre designed to suggest the government is tackling an issue.

Will further privatizing health care fix it? The system does require fresh approaches but private companies will seek to reduce spending and resources that are already in short supply. Maybe they have new ideas, but the bottom line always drives their actions. Private long-term care homes notoriously have fewer staff than public facilities.

Speaking of political theatre, Wednesday night the Donald Trump show went to the U.S. Congress. The president’s State of the Union address was a typical mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Any fact-checking will show how he manipulated numbers to exaggerate the success of his economic policies, his domestic initiatives and his foreign policy adventures.

He did offer and seek co-operation with Democrats, but any chance of it will likely fail for one reason: Democrats, for all of their stated yearning for congressional peace, aren’t about to allow the president to claim successes ahead of next year’s election. Not when a majority of Americans disapprove of him, his style and many of his signature initiatives.

There was one sign that constant criticism has gotten to Trump. From his initial premise that only a concrete wall across the entire southern border, paid by Mexico, would block hordes of “illegal immigrants” from entering the U.S., the president now offers what Democrats can perhaps support — sections of steel fencing in isolated spots identified by border agents as particularly porous.

But then he scotched his own offer of reconciliation with this threat: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” In other words, if investigations into his conduct continue, prolonging the bitter political impasse, there won’t be much of any co-operation from the White House. And so the two sides will continue to bicker and obfuscate — and lie — to seek advantage in the election campaign that is clearly already underway.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

(Originally published Feb. 9, 2019)

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