Unlike the first ministers, I admit when I am wrong

In August, I predicted the televised first ministers' health summit would be a vacuous exercise in feel-good rhetoric. I was wrong. It was highly revealing. These guys even do fake badly. In 1934, economist John Maynard Keynes famously visited U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to urge him to tackle the Great Depression through deficit spending, and emerged muttering that frankly he'd "supposed the president was more literate, economically speaking." I suffered no similar disappointment this week. I knew our politicians were, in economist William Watson's words, "amateur clinicians ... gathering every few years to make their best guess -- governed ... by fad" on health.

H.L. Mencken once called government "a gang of men exactly like you and me" with "no special talent for the business of government ... only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device ... is to seek out groups who pant and pine for something they can't get and promise to give it to them. Nine times out of 10, that promise is worth nothing." For instance, last year's National Health Council, or 2002's Integrated Pan-Canadian Healthy Living Strategy.

Only amateurs would discover every few years that if only people didn't get sick so much, health care would cost less. Yeah. And if winters weren't so cold, we'd save on heating. Is that a plan? Can we go home now? But Mencken is wrong on one point. Politicians are quite unlike normal humans in their unshakable conviction that they should hold high public office even if their public relations specialists can't figure out why. Consider Paul Martin's promise in May to "fix medicare for a generation." Obviously if he'd had a plan then he'd have campaigned on it. So what made him think he'd have one by September? Only that he is the great Himself, the Man who would be PM.

Which we knew already. But we didn't know these guys can't even spin well. Of course we got the usual rolling thunder about "important" and "historic" and, given seven minutes for opening remarks, Mr. Martin droned on for 35 and Jean Charest droned back for 24. But when the time came to fake substantive, it all came unglued.

Monday's public meeting started with bickering about what had been said privately on Sunday night. Later they admitted that Tuesday night they'd squabbled privately while gobbling, the Citizen reported, "roasted B.C. sturgeon, parsnip puree with baby spinach and an entre-mets of grapefruit beurre blanc ... Rankin Inlet caribou tenderloin with juniper berry crust on a warm salad ... lentils, Outaouais chanterelles with Micha goat cheese and smoky bacon ... a Yukon low-bush cranberry compote, micro greens on an aged Gouda crouton and butterscotch pudding ... with a trio of Ontario wines." Man, that's living. But the meeting ran to 3 a.m., (complete with a classic dorm-room pizza run I'd have staged for the cameras, saving the caribou on warm salad for later). The next day, a C-minus essay was cobbled together by officials scurrying between meeting rooms while fatigue clouded men's minds and TV cameras gazed upon an empty hall. Amateurs.

Of course Paul Martin then strode to a microphone to hail a "10-year plan, a deal for a decade that will lead to better health care for all Canadians ... People around this table stood up for health care and Canadians. There was determination to secure a long-term deal that will stop the annual ritual of federal-provincial disputes and start the process of renewal." In fact, he wrote a hot blank cheque with fake strings attached ("evidence-based benchmarks," the current fad, without enforcement mechanisms, from which Quebec is exempt) to premiers who already said they'll be back Oct. 26 for more equalization money.

At times, I wish our politicians were smarter than they look; as Alexandre Dumas said, at least rogues take vacations. Dalton McGuinty and, before he wandered off to a Quebec casino, Ralph Klein, demanded more money from the feds. I hope they know that, for every dollar the federal government transfers to our two remaining "have" provinces, it takes more than a dollar from their taxpayers, but that they have a cunning plan to get credit for the spending and duck blame for the taxes. I can't shake that Keynesian feeling that what you see is all they've got. It is certainly suggestive that no first minister ever looked into a camera and explained how much more money would be enough or how they knew, let alone how they'd spend it better, even though it would have been a PR coup.

They don't know anything. They never did know anything. But now we know that they don't know, all at a health care summit. So I was wrong: The cameras were useful. Unfortunately.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson