That lied-to feeling again

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Above is a screen shot taken from Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Letaio’s 2018-2019 budget tabled this afternoon. Where was the Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital project for the past 10 years before it entered the planning stage? 

I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting a good feeling about last week’s Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital announcement made by Premier Philippe Couillard, Health Minister Gaètan Barrette and our region’s two Liberal MNAs Lucie Charlebois and Marie-Claude Nichols. According to today’s Liberal 2018-19 budget, the hospital is ‘now in the “planning stage” in the 2018-2028 capital investment plan. Where was it prior to last Thursday’s announcement? What went on during those 10 years since former health minister Yves Bolduc made the initial promise?

Four months as a municipal councillor have taught me the tricks governments use to kick an election-promise can down the road. Posting them in a capital investment wish list is a sure-fire can-kicker.

Maybe I’m using the wrong metaphor. Instead of kicking the can, what about badminton with the bureaucracy? We’re the bird being whacked back and forth.

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My last blog Political Improv was written following last Thursday’s announcement, described above on the website of the SQI, the government’s real estate development arm. Since then, I’ve come to reflect on why I concluded the event was improvised. It was the absence of documentation.

Whenever the provincial government has a significant announcement to make, there’s a snowstorm of releases beginning with the invite to a news conference. Journalists attending tare greeted with media kits. Usually there’s a page on the announcement and a page or two of briefing notes. If more than one elected official is present, one also gets copies of speeches to be checked against delivery.

These media kits are assembled by the press attachés for the porteur du dossier, the ministry or agency under whose authority the announcement is being made, with input from their colleagues in the political sphere. In this case, the media kit should have included a statement from Couillard’s office, an explainer from Barrette’s people and comments from both MNAs, one of whom is also a cabinet minister.

The invite came from Yves Masse, president-director-general of the Centre intégré de santé et de services social de la Montérégie-Ouest. I received mine on my town email March 20. It was headed Annonce importante concernant les soins et les services de santé offerts sur le territoire de Vaudreuil-Soulanges but gave no details about who would be making it. The lack of paper says to me Masse and his people have as much enthusiasm for building this hospital as Vaudreuil-Soulanges residents have for voting Liberal. Quebec’s health and social services bureaucracy doesn’t take kindly to being ordered to work at anything more than a snail’s pace; 2028 may be optimistic.

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So here we are on budget day evening, attempting to parse what, exactly, the government has announced in regard to a Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital. Above is what we THINK is the envelope for the purchase of the site on which the hospital will be built. Is it?

I’m one of those who feels Finance Minister Letaio and the Couillard Liberals have done an exemplary job of cleaning up Quebec’s finances and putting this province back on the road to prosperity. Ex-Quebeckers visiting from outside the province can’t believe the number of public and private construction projects in Quebec’s major cities. But for whatever reason, the Couillard Liberals have neglected the Montérégie-Ouest, the tail on the Montérégie donkey with its head in Longueuil.

It makes no sense to me that the Liberals would deliberately turn their backs on Vaudreuil-Soulanges, a district which contains two ridings that have consistently voted Liberal for decades. But the lack of efficient public transit, no replacement date for the crumbling Île aux Tourtes bridge and a list of other deferred promises speak for themselves.

The Liberals could pull off a win in October’s election, but it won’t be with weasel words and bureaucratic code for “let’s kick this sucker down the road for another 10 years and see if those rubes in Vaudreuil-Soulanges are as stupid as they seem.”

Fool us once — shame on you. Fool us twice — shame on us.

 

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Political improv

Liberal hospital announcement
From left, Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon, Vaudreuil MNA Marie-Claude Nichols, ealth Minister Gaètan Barrette, Premier Philippe Couillard, Soulanges MNA and Treasury Board vice-chair Lucie Charlebois, Vaudreuil-Soulanges prefect Patrick Bousez, Yves Masse (standing).

Improv theatre has its place, but at the announcement of a $1.5 billion hospital for Vaudreuil-Soulanges? I’m referring to Tuesday’s (March 22) reveal by Quebec premier Philippe Couillard that his government would finally be getting around to build a 404-bed facility to serve the county’s 150,000 residents.

This should be a vote-getter in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Back in August 2008, then Liberal health minister Yves Bolduc gratified the region’s healthcare structure with an unscripted promise of a 250-bed hospital by 2018. Shortly after the Liberals retook power, Couillard walked Bolduc’s blurt back with his own vague non-promise at a February 2014 appearance. Couillard’s health minister Gaètan Barrette tried to play it both ways with an April 2016 announcement that $16M had been earmarked for acquisition of a site. The money was never appropriated and the site, still agriculturally zoned, was somehow removed from the regional master plan.

Those following this file have become cynical, inured, jaded, fatigued disbelievers after a decade of blabla, especially whenever they’re forced to seek emergency services. Valleyfield? Eastern Ontario? Lakeshore? Downtown? My Louise calls it Loto ER. As I write this, Valleyfield’s Hôpital du Suroît, the ER for more 200,000 Vaudreuil-Soulanges residents, is at 268% capacity. Thirty patients have been lying on gurneys in the corridors for up to 24 hours. Another 19 have been there for up to 48 hours. It’s the hands-down winner of Quebec’s palmares de débordement, our imaginary award for the most overcrowded ER in the province.

Whenever I feel a pang of pity for our local MNAs I remind myself of family and friends wasting hours waiting for to be seen by overworked caregivers while this government chose to ignore our plight.

Thursday’s news conference was called in haste, I suspect because the committee which has been lobbying for the hospital for close to a decade ramped up the pressure by making it an issue in this October’s provincial election. Polls show François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec leading the Liberals in voter intentions by as much as 20 points. Premature, yes, but Liberal support is trending the wrong way. The Liberals don’t share their internal polling but the storm of comments on social media suggest Vaudreuil-Soulanges voters are royally pissed — in both languages.

Whatever, Couillard began on the defensive. “Your deputies fought for this project…cost is immaterial because of the need in the region…we’ll prioritize every step.” A site, currently zoned agricultural, has been identified at the junction of blvds. Harwood and Cité des Jeunes and $16M squirrelled away for its acquisition. (Look for it in Tuesday’s budget.) Quebec will call for tenders in 2019. Construction will begin in 2022, with a late 2026 completion date. The hospital will have 10 operating rooms and 94 surgical beds, 44 psychiatric beds, 24 paediatric beds. A 25-bed obstetrics ward will be able to handle 2,000-plus births a year. More than half the beds would be earmarked for general medicine.

Couillard and Barrette skated hard in explaining the rationale for the 10-year delay. Forget that 250-bed hospital, they said. It was wrong from the start. What happened at Pierre Legardeur, a 250-bed hospital that should have started with 400 beds, won’t happen to you. We took the time we needed to give you the right hospital, adapted to your needs. Barrette: “We can dig a hole tomorrow, but it’s for a hospital, not a quarry.”

Later, Barrette would claim the delay was entirely his fault and reportedly said that if he loses, he’ll return here to work for the new hospital. That, together with Couillard’s explanation of how the government can decree the rezoning of the site from green to white and place the approval process beyond the reach of whichever government succeeds his, suggests to me the Liberals are hearing CAQ footsteps.

The most emotional intervention was that of Soulanges MNA Lucie Charlebois, whose portfolios include the Montérégie, Rehabilitation, Youth Protection, Public Health and Healthy Living. Charlebois, whose riding now includes the Town of Hudson as the result of the latest electoral redistribution, is also vice-chair of the Treasury Board and a member of the Cabinet Committee for Social, Educational and Cultural Development. In other words, Charlebois, one of the highest ranking women in Couillard’s cabinet, can count on an historically Liberal vote from Hudson and St. Lazare. I would have thought a Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital would have been a cabinet priority, if only to sweeten Charlebois’s and Nichols’s re-election chances in two ridings the Liberals can win.

Instead, Charlebois appeared to lash out at those who questioned her government’s handling of the hospital file. “Are you happy now?” she asked Louise Craig, the English-language spokesperson for the Comité tripartite pour la construction de l’hôpital de Vaudreuil-Soulanges lobbying for the hospital. She and Nichols called for a ‘grand collaboration’ to get everyone working together for the common good. “Too little, too late,” I thought to myself.

The invite for the news conference was sent out over the signature of Yves Masse, president-director-general of the Centre intégré de santé et de services social de la Montérégie-Ouest. Quebec’s bureaucracy does its utmost to remain apolitical. We could debate whether this was a political announcement but the message I got was that Masse would have preferred being stuck behind an accident on the Ile aux Tourtes bridge with no gas and a full bladder. It falls on his CISSSM-O to cover the ER shortfall in Vaudreuil-Soulanges for the next eight, nine or 10 years.

My advice to all: do whatever it takes to remain healthy — and thank your lucky stars if you live in a community with First Responders. If not, pray the ambulance gets there in time.