Furious George goes ape!

Monday, November 8, 2004

  • George Smitherman

    George Smitherman

Written by Scott Piatkowski

If I thought that Dalton McGuinty would take my call, I’d give him a ring to ask him something that’s been on my mind for the past several weeks: How is it that your government can propose to ban pit bulls, while leaving George Smitherman in his job as Health Minister?

When he was in opposition, Smitherman’s role as McGuinty’s designated attack dog was mildly amusing, if somewhat predictable. There were more than a few raised eyebrows when he was first given the highly sensitive Health portfolio. Since that time, he has more than lived up to his reputation, causing NDP leader Howard Hampton to tag him with the nickname “Furious George”. However, as is becoming apparent, what may work in opposition can be disastrous when practiced on government.

Ontario hospitals, which are facing a collective deficit of $600 million, are complaining that Smitherman is attempting to muzzle any criticism about funding shortfalls. Some of that muzzling is explicit – in the form of a memo sent to hospitals in the summer – but most of it has come in the form of implied threats. Ontario Hospital Association President Hilary Short says that Smitherman's aggressive approach “can cause some anxiety in organizations that may not be used to that kind of style. There is an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.” Others have described his approach as “belligerent”, “mean” and “personal”.

Those hospitals that are patiently waiting for promised new funding to be released have been put in a particularly vulnerable position. A consultant working for many such hospitals told The Toronto Star: “We've been advising our clients not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. There are more projects on line than there are capital dollars. The trick is how to get to the front of the line. We haven't figured that out yet. But we have figured out how to get to the back of the line very quickly: by complaining publicly.” A hospital administrator quoted in the same article added that “There's a lot of paranoia out there. It's very easy for people to draw the connection (between speaking out and the cancellation of a project).”

Those threats were apparently made explicit when Smitherman visited North Bay this summer. When municipal officials there called on Smitherman to ante up a greater share of the money needed to fund a new hospital, Smitherman reportedly replied that “If you decide to change the channel [i.e. continue to push for higher funding] you will make my work easier in deciding which of the 40 pre-tendered projects get funded.” Bill Vrebosch, the Mayor of the Township of East Ferris, summed up the meeting as follows: “"There is no dealing with this gentleman. Whenever he seems to talk to people he's always aggressive ... I've been around politics for 30 years and I don't need to be yelled at ... there is no compromise because he's always right.” Another person who was at the meeting (who spoke to The Star on the condition of anonymity) commented that “There is no surprise in reading that people say he is a bully. We saw it first hand. He was rude. He was a goddamned son of a bitch. He's a bully. It's the only way to describe him.”

Hospital workers have been specifically targetted for cuts by Smitherman, who argues that they are paid too much. “Just because it is a public health-care system doesn't mean that we can . . . afford to pay more for the same services, that we should expect to pay more to sweep the floor in a hospital . . . or to administer a hospital,” he said, eerily echoing – almost word for word – a report released in September by the Fraser Institute (traditionally a source of inspiration for only the most right-wing governments).

Of course, Smitherman still saves some of his best bullying for his fellow legislators. On October 26, the same day that his Liberal colleague had to apologize for suggesting that NDP member Marilyn Churley was experiencing “a hot flash”, Smitherman told NDP member Michael Prue that, “Yes, I do recommend that you should get lethal injection for yourself.” After the intervention of the Speaker, he withdrew his comment.

In contemplating Smitherman’s future role, McGuinty would be well advised to mull over this passage from Bob Rae’s memoirs regarding Peter Kormos (who, interestingly, has learned to be an effective team player under the leadership of Howard Hampton). “I also decided to give a cabinet job to Peter Kormos, a particularly flamboyant character from the Niagara peninsula. [Principal Secretary David] Agnew’s view, which I fully shared, was that it was, to borrow Lyndon Johnson’s proverbial phrase, better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. The problem was that he ended up inside the tent pissing in. And that made his time in cabinet necessarily short.”

As George Smitherman’s ego and temperament lead him to further excesses in his dealings with the health care sector, Dalton McGuinty needs to make a judgement about how much more of Smitherman the people of Ontario are willing to put up with. My strong sense is that most Ontarians – particularly those working in the health care sector – have already reached their limit.

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