Arthur Milnes: Harper and Ignatieff flub their medicare moment

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Arthur Milnes, a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University, served as research assistant to Brian Mulroney on the latter's 2007 Memoirs.]

The question came during a news conference featuring Canada's prime minister and the sitting American president 20 years ago this year. The president standing next to our guy was relatively new to office. And after our PM answered the question at the White House itself, no one even suggested that Canadians were interfering in U.S. politics.

For our prime minister of the day – Brian Mulroney – the question was like manna from heaven. After all, what Canadian politician – save seemingly Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff – wouldn't relish the opportunity to defend medicare before an American crowd at the White House.

Unlike today's crew in Canada, Mulroney seized the medicare moment on May 4, 1989. And in doing so, an assist came his way from an unlikely source – an American journalist.

"We're very proud of the special health-care system that we've developed over the years," Mulroney told the White House press corps that day when presented with a question about Canadian medicare. "It's an integral part of our citizenship. We strengthen it every opportunity we can, and we don't see it under any challenge or attack."

And then came the kicker:

"Could you explain that to Mr. Bush so we can get that same health system in the United States?" the reporter wondered.

Mulroney himself continued the story more than a decade later in his Memoirs.

"I chuckled to myself," he wrote. "The irony was striking. Only a few months earlier I had been accused of threatening the very existence of medicare because of the Free Trade Agreement, and now here I was in Washington, at the White House, being lobbied to promote medicare with George Bush himself!"

What makes the Mulroney-Bush 41 story so interesting in 2009 is the fact that this year Canada – whether we like it or not – has found itself playing a lead role in the health-care debate raging in President Barack Obama's America.

Depending on who you listen to (and particularly if it's coming from the American right), Canada's medicare system is something Americans should fear. We are the land of socialized medicine where bureaucrats (imported from the Kremlin?) make the health-care decisions, or so the story goes.

So with all this going on, you'd think that either Harper or Ignatieff would consider hopping on a plane, heading to Washington and demonstrating they've learned from those pages in Mulroney's book. In fairness, NDP Leader Jack Layton did indeed visit Washington where he defended Canadian medicare but, unfortunately, as could be expected when heading a fourth party up here, he received little notice. Still, full marks for his at least trying. And Kingston Conservative Senator Hugh Segal valiantly rose to the defence of medicare – even appearing on CNN, to name just one media outlet – when Kingston General Hospital in his home community came under attack on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in the midst of this debate.

Without getting into the merits of the medical system (thankfully) bequeathed Canadians by Tommy Douglas, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson, you'd think the brain trusts surrounding the Prime Minister and Leader of the Official Opposition might consider lining up an appearance for their leaders in the States right about now.

For some inexplicable reason, however, that hasn't been the case.

Last week, the polling and research firm EKOS published a survey demonstrating what good politics a foray by Ignatieff or Harper into America to defend medicare might be right now.

While Canadians disagree on many things, we're very much united over medicare. EKOS reports that 87 per cent of Canadians believe Canada's health-care system is better than the one in the United States. Only 7 per cent prefer the American model.

"Whatever the pitfalls of Canada's system, it is seen as dramatically better in serving the needs of its overall citizenry," EKOS president Frank Graves says.

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little fed up about turning on my television and seeing some guy (or gal) from Kentucky or a right-wing congressman safely protected by his congressional health plan attacking my country on this issue. Call me old-fashioned, but I think – especially in light of what EKOS has discovered – that many Canadians are like me and would enjoy seeing our Prime Minister or Leader of the Official Opposition defending our country in America during this health-care season.

And for the life of me, I simply can't figure out why Harper or Ignatieff won't seize the medicare moment – like Mulroney once did – and defend our nation's most prized social program in America when it is under attack. (And for Harper, who many still believe harbours a hidden agenda that doesn't include a fulsome belief in medicare, to pass this up really makes no sense).

Not only is it the right thing to do – it has the added bonus of being the right political thing to do as well.

Chances like this don't come often in politics and the fact both Harper and Ignatieff are asleep at the switch on this one might help explain why both leaders have job approval ratings, according to the same EKOS poll, between 37 per cent (Harper) and 29 per cent (Ignatieff).

And President Obama – the man trying to reform America's medical system – his job approval rating among Canadians? More than 70 per cent.

There's a lesson here for Harper and Ignatieff.

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