As I wrote about last week, one of the first big events of this Federal election season is just around the corner: The Federal Budget. And with all big events like these that happen on Parliament Hill, there are certain traditions that come along with it. The Finance Minister buys a new pair of shoes (that usually fits with whatever theme is being spoken to in that budget) and the announcement has to wait until after the stock markets close at 4 pm. There is the usual fun time to be had in the lock up then followed by the mad dash to leave it and spill the beans as soon as the Minister takes to his feet to give the budget speech. It’s a lot of theatre, even by the high standards of Parliament, but it’s also all part of the event.
Another tradition (or at least one that’s developed over time) is the annual guessing and pontificating about what will be in that budget, usually set off by “leaks” the come out beforehand. Some of these leaks turn out to be true, others not so much. Sometimes the leaks seem like an attempt to set the scene for the big day itself, but others seem more like trial balloons set out to see how everyone reacts.
Well today I guess we officially started that pontificating and wondering as we seemed to have our first budget leak of this election season. It came courtesy of Reuters, and honestly, it’s a bit of a doozy.
Canada’s Liberal government will propose a limited expansion to the country’s universal healthcare system in the spring budget to cover part of the cost of prescription drugs, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
This first leak is a fascinating to me for many reasons. For starters, last year the Liberals appointed former Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins to study a potential pharma care plan, so this is not totally out the blue. Further to that, it’s starting to sound like a plan that would land in the middle, where this party likes to place itself. Its not a full pharma care plan like the NDP would run on, but more than nothing, which is what we’d expect the Conservatives to offer on this front. If it’s true, it’s a cunning approach.
The part that I find most interesting is that this proposal already seems to be taking a different direction then Dr. Hoskins took when the Wynne Liberals brought in pharma care for everyone under 25 in Ontario. It seems to be a “part of the cost for everyone” approach, as opposed to a “all the cost for some” approach previously done in Ontario. That might be a way to defend itself from some attacks from the Conservatives for being too ambitious and costly, while also being able to say to the NDP they’re starting down the path and be patient.
But of the parties I see this policy being more aimed at, it’s surely the NDP. The Orange Team has put a lot stock early in the leadership of Jagmeet Singh into a national pharma care program as a signature policy, picking up the flame to finish what Tommy Douglas started decades ago. Naming Dr. Hoskins to this advisory role already took some wind out of those sails. In an election which promises to be heated and more polarizing than recent campaigns, this might be enough to attract those traditionally NDP voters who have wanted to see some version of this policy for decades. In theory, it could have the same effect that the Liberals promises on electoral reform had in the 2015 election.
Of course all of that is predicated on one big question: Will the Trudeau Liberals keep this promise? Like the example of electoral reform, many of those who were big on that issue feel burned by the end results of that promise. Does that make for a cautionary tale for those who have pushed for pharma care? Well that’s why what comes out in the budget will be so important. A budget is not a platform document; a budget is concrete and real, it’s happening and it’s a document of action that spends money to make things happen. Putting actual concrete steps on this idea in this platform would take the concept from the realm of promises to action, even if it’s early on. So what the government puts in that budget on pharma care will make all the difference. If they put real, concrete proposals with real money in this fiscal year towards it, that puts the NDP in a box on this issue. If the government decides not to do that, it will leave itself exposed to legitimate question of just how real this promise is.
So we’ll keep watching for more drips coming out before the budget and what other proposals and ideas leak out before the big day. They will tell us a lot about what the election debate will look like and tell us a lot about what ground the Liberals want to try to fight this campaign on. It promises to be interesting, or at least as interesting as Minister Morneau’s new shoes.