All Spin, No Traction

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Danny and Jerome's bluff is destined to fail

The Williams Government has been talking tough in contract negotiations with the provinces doctors.

Theyve been treating doctors in a dishonourable and unprofessional way, as part of a strategy to sway public opinion against doctors.

But its all a bluff. A faade. Jerome Kennedy and Danny Williams are all bluster and spin, and their position has no traction. No matter what they do on this file, they are destined to lose. The law is not on their side.

First, some background.

Negotiations have been ongoing for 15 months and Kennedy knew this when he attacked pathologists on March 12 for being childish, while dropping in a none-too-subtle dig about the pathologists $335,000 salary. Days later, when he returned to work, Premier Danny Williams took it up a notch, saying he would have used even stronger language.

However, the report that Kennedy described as scathing was really not that bad. Anyone employed in a workplace of two or more people knows that office politics can be brutal. A key message on this matter was delivered by Eastern Health CEO Vickie Kaminski, when she said the authoritys lab work has never been safer.

Which raises the question: if safety is not at issue, why did the Minister and the Premier publicly ridicule what should be an internal human resources matter? Clearly, these were intimidation tactics intended to confuse and weaken the opponent.

A week later, Premier Williams piled it on, only now he was talking about all doctors when he said their salary expectations were, through the roof. Too high. Can't be dealt with. Can't be satisfied. Can't be answered.

Did you notice how seamlessly they blurred the various issues? The desired effect was achieved that week on VOCM Open Line, when host Randy Simms said there would not be a lot of public sympathy for the NLMA with doctors making $335,000 per year. (Simms didnt know that $335,000 is the exception other equally-qualified doctors make much less, and this is the crux of the problem in current negotiations.)

This point was also made by Rob Ritter of the NLMA, on CBC Radio Noon. Tying the negotiations to (Kennedy's) comments criticizing doctors in the lab all of those things together lead me to believe that there is a bit of an orchestrated plan here to prime the public on a particular mindset, Ritter said.

Anyway, after the premiers through the roof outburst, and subsequent cancellation of negotiations, the NLMA requested the matter be put to binding arbitration.

Then, the next day, something shifted. Governments hard line softened. Minister Kennedy did a major climb-down, claiming with a smug smile that it was all a misunderstanding. Negotiations had not ended.

Up to then, the premier and his minister were engaged in their usual tactic of belittling, insulting and intimidating their opponents. They were pushing hard, then pulled back. So what happened? Why the turnaround?

I expect somebody reminded the premier that his tactics were doomed to backfire.

Because according to the Canada Health Act, when negotiations between provincial governments and their doctors are not successful, the matter must by federal law be sent to binding arbitration.

I uncovered this fact while Googling search terms related to this dispute, and found this arbitration decision from 2003, between the provincial government and its doctors. Scroll down to the History of Agreement and Negotiations section, starting on page 5.

The terminology is complex, but the message is clear: when negotiations between provincial governments and doctors reach an impasse, matters must be referred to binding arbitration.

The doctors want arbitration because they have a solid case. They know they will win, at minimum, parity with the other Atlantic provinces. The premier will not participate for the exact same reason.

The province does have a legal loophole, in the event it undertakes binding arbitration but doesnt like the decision. The Canada Health Act says binding arbitration decisions may not be altered except by an Act of the legislature of the province.

So Premier Williams could use his paramount authority to overturn a decision not in his favour.

This, however, would be a fatal error. As we heard recently from doctors of general internal medicine, the system is stretched beyond the breaking point and we are in a crisis situation. The childish antics of the premier and health minister have not helped this situation.

Doctors in the province are already leaving for jurisdictions where the pay is better and the hours more reasonable. A legislated settlement would hasten their departure, and snuff out any hope of recruiting new doctors.

In cases like this, the premiers modus operandi is to fly off the handle at the first sign of disagreement, attacking the motives, integrity and dignity of his opponent. It is a tactic that sometimes wins public support, but also comes with a cost, in the form of damaged relationships. It is worrisome and downright ugly when the premier attacks people in this province, for standing their ground and speaking their minds.

And judging by some of the idiotic remarks Ive been reading in the online comments section, the premier has been at least partially successful in turning the public against doctors. But this is not a battle for public opinion. The stakes are much higher than that.

Firstly, no matter how much he postures, the premier and his minister are bluffing. Every time the premier insists that doctors salary expectations are over the moon, he moves one step closer to binding arbitration.

And if he imposes a legislated settlement, it will drive more doctors out of the province. This would have a life-threatening impact on the thousands of people who access our health care system every day; people who do not have the option to fly elsewhere for their care.

No matter how you look at it, Premier Williams, you cannot win.

It is time to behave like an adult and negotiate in good faith with the doctors. The bluff is not working. Weve seen your cards.

And your hand is looking pretty weak.

For another perspective on this situation, I direct your attention to this column by Peter Jackson of The Telegram. For a clear understanding of whats at stake, direct from the horses mouth, watch the news conference footage at the NLMA web site.

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Recent comments

  • Craig
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Great analysis. However, I believe Premier George Hamilton is back in his condo in Florida having someone squirt oil on his back while feeling Proud, Strong and Determined. A six day session of the House of Assembly can be pretty strenuous.

    The peons back here are left to mark time while doctors stew and the crab fishery - the most important fishery in dozens of rural communities - flops around in crisis mode again. No crab equals no income for thousands of Newfoundland families.

    As an aside, the $200 million environmental cleanup cost at AbitibiBowater sites that we are now going to have to shoulder because of the Golden Tan's ill considered Expropriation legislation would have been more than enough to bring our doctors pay up to par with the Have Not provinces of the Maritimes.

    We have the highest paid premier and MHA's but the lowest paid doctors in the country.

    I guess that speaks to our priorities.

    Craig Westcott.