He's blunt, decisive and driven. And now Ron Liepert is out to reshape health care in Alberta
By Sheila Pratt
December 21, 2008
Ron Liepert, the tough guy from Calgary West, doesn't have much time for the usual give and take of political life.
"You assess the pros and cons and make a bloody decision," says the ambitious new minister of health.
That's how he's been running Alberta's Health Ministry for the last 12 months -- abolishing regional health authorities, firing CEOs, hiring business executives to run the $8-billion system, ending universal drug coverage for seniors, expanding home care, moving more seniors care to the private sector.
All this with barely a shred of consultation with the public or the health-care community. And he's unapologetic about it.
"Ralph Klein did all sorts of consultations," he says. "How much success did they have? How much did health care change under Ralph Klein? So why would we follow the same path he did and get the same results?"
Ron Liepert has certainly carved his own path in the last two years. With a meteoric rise from rookie backbencher to top cabinet post, he's become a key player in Ed Stelmach's cabinet and the most prominent public face in a government with a reputation for bland and low-key.
A Saskatchewan farm boy with a pragmatic streak and a notoriously short fuse, the 59-year-old Liepert has no time for the "negative" whiners on the opposition benches. He grew up poor, didn't finish high school and has always been a fighter, a trait that helped him make the journey into the ranks of the province's political elite.
Liepert got his political education first in the 1980s, a less ideological era, as a tough-minded media handler for premier Peter Lougheed. But his political style is reminiscent of the Klein era -- combative, hyperpartisan, with little tolerance for the press.
Decisive and confident, Liepert is moving swiftly on many fronts with health reform: introducing competition in private clinics; defining a new role for under-used rural hospitals; and expanding the duties of paramedics.
But he won't talk about the big picture, where the system will end up. He figures he'll succeed where his predecessors have failed by rolling things out piece by piece.
If you ask Albertans if they want to see a plan laid out or some details about the future, "95 per cent" will say they don't care, Liepert says. "They just what to make sure health care is there when they need it.
"The only people worked up about that are the media and the opposition."
The Tory caucus gives a quick stamp of approval to Liepert's policies before he announces them. Sources say Tory MLAs give him high marks for getting things done even if it's not in the most politically sensitive way. (No MLA in the Edmonton caucus will discuss the issue publicly).
But his blunt, abrasive style has landed him in hot water more than once in his short two years in cabinet and may yet cause headaches for Ed Stelmach.
In 2007, as education minister, Liepert sparked talk of a teachers' strike over pension negotiations before Ed Stelmach was forced to step in.
A year later, as health minister, he startled everyone by announcing Albertans had voted for change in health care in the March 2008 election, even though health-care reform wasn't mentioned in the campaign. (Stelmach said the Third Way was "DOA" -- dead on arrival). Shortly after, Liepert shook up Edmonton by dismantling Capital Health and firing its highly regarded CEO, Sheila Weatherill.
This summer, he ignored his own Health Ministry and abruptly cancelled an awareness campaign about the spread of syphilis, even though an internal report showed the disease was moving into the general population.
The ads were "pretty shocking" and might have offended some people, including some in caucus, Liepert said. But mostly, he says, he didn't think it would be effective.
"If I really felt it would do a lot of good, I'd step into it," he added.
Liepert is not always confrontational; he can show a deft hand when he needs it. When scandal emerged over the reuse of syringes in a rural hospital, Liepert took a calm and even-handed approach and contained the problem in a few days.
And in November, he successfully negotiated a settlement with doctors -- 15 per cent over three years -- with provision for changing the system of fee-per-visit payments.
To understand where Ron Liepert is coming from, you have to travel back to southeastern Saskatchewan to the quarter section of land farmed by the Liepert family.
The small, mixed farm was just three kilometres from the village of Saltcoats and about 30 kilometres from Yorkton, near the Manitoba border. Ron's three uncles also farmed in the area. It wasn't an easy way to make a living.
Ron's father ran the farm, with its chickens and a handful of dairy cows, and his mother grew their vegetables. The family had no running water or electricity, and in 30 years of farming, their father never earned enough to pay off the mortgage, says Ron's younger brother Dave, who now runs an antique business in Saltcoats.
"We didn't have much," says Dave, except lots of chores.
Dave recalls Ron and their sister, Judy, milking cows by hand, feeding calves and hauling water in buckets. Once a week, their parents took the cream into Yorkton and sold it for grocery money, he says.
For entertainment, the family mostly visited their nearby relatives. Occasionally, there was a game of cards under the coal-oil lamp. They didn't get electricity until Ron was a teenager.
He was always sports crazy, especially for hockey and baseball. On Sundays, everyone gathered at the local baseball diamond. In winter, the hard-working teen built a rink, carrying buckets of water across the yard, tramping down the snow in those cold, long evenings.
"Then I'd pretend I was the Toronto Maple Leafs," says Ron, with a rare smile. "And in the spring, we'd pull the pucks out of my mother's garden.
"That was what you did for entertainment."
At age six, Ron went off to the one-room school house down the road. "Six of us started together, and I was always at the bottom of the class," he recalls. School didn't engage him. He flunked Grade 10 and left school at age 17, in the middle of Grade 11, he says.
"I had no interest in school and wanted to make money."
Ron followed the path of many Saskatchewan farm boys in the late 1960s -- he took a Greyhound bus to Calgary and got a job in a factory.
In his first winter, he worked for Rosco Steel making steel door frames for $1.78 an hour, and stayed with an aunt and uncle. For three years, he went back to Saskatchewan every spring to help run the farm. His dad was laid up with a bad back, so Ron, as the oldest son, took on extra responsibility.
By 1970, the third summer, Ron made up his mind that farming wasn't for him. "We had nowhere to put the crop because the grain from the first year was still in the granary. We couldn't sell the crop. I said there's no future and told my Dad to sell the farm."
So Ron settled into Calgary. "I had what I thought was a pretty good job at Burns Foods, making spread-easy cheeses."
The future looked solid -- a steady job, decent pay, and he'd met Linda, the love of his life, soon to be his wife.
But things are never that simple. The streak of ambition that drove Liepert off the farm and into the big city was still gnawing at him.
He watched his fellow workers settle for two-week holidays in B.C. and 50 weeks of work they didn't really like, "and I decided there was more to life."
In 1971, with his deep voice and an interest in community affairs, Liepert enrolled in a correspondence course with the Columbia Broadcasting School based in Washington, D.C. It was one of the most important decisions in his life.
A year later, Ron landed a job with CHAB in Moose Jaw for $300 a month. The family, including a baby daughter, packed up their Calgary home and headed down a new road to a new life.
The radio job meant long hours and low pay. After an evening shift from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., Liepert was up the next morning to cover courts at 9 a.m. To help pay the bills, he took a job moving furniture in the afternoons.
In the mid-1970s, he went to CFCW radio in Camrose and was sent to cover the legislature in Edmonton. Late in the decade, he moved to Edmonton's ITV and covered the 1979 provincial election that gave Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed another massive majority. At the time, someone else was watching the progress of this straight-talking veteran reporter.
Bob Giffin was Peter Lougheed's right-hand man. After the 1979 election, Giffin was looking for a new press secretary for the premier's office and Liepert caught his eye. "He was a self-starter, a solid citizen and not afraid to tackle a problem," Giffin says. "And he wasn't a yes man."
He certainly didn't get the job because of political leanings, adds Giffin. Liepert voted NDP in Saskatchewan and for Social Credit MLA Walter Buck when he moved to Edmonton.
Lougheed just chuckled at that, Liepert recalls. The job offer was a great opportunity. "I thought that was quite an honour."
From reporter on the outside, Liepert suddenly found himself with one foot in the inner circles of the Tory caucus and cabinet. He had a front-row seat for historic moments such as the constitutional negotiations and the battle over the National Energy Program, though he says he didn't much appreciate the events at the time. "Part of the problem was I was a little young and kind of cocky in some ways."
What Peter Lougheed admired in his rookie press secretary was his ability to speak plainly. "He would never say what he figured I wanted to hear, and that was a huge asset," Lougheed recalled in an interview. Liepert also had a good feel for rural Alberta, also very helpful.
The two worked well together, Lougheed said. Liepert's capacity to analyze complex issues and quickly reach a firm position was especially impressive.
Lougheed ran a very tight ship, skillfully controlling media access and "organizing" his messages. Liepert was the tough and at times belligerent gatekeeper who kept the media firmly in hand.
Liepert left the premier's office in 1985, after Lougheed retired, and took a job as the province's trade representative in Los Angeles, a standard political reward. That's where he encountered U.S. health care. When his young son broke his arm playing on the monkey bars, Liepert rushed him to a nearby hospital. They wanted $5,000 cash before they'd treat him, he recalls.
When his provincial job ended in 1991, Liepert had an offer from a private company to stay on as a local representative. But the deal fell through at the last minute. The company couldn't get American medical insurance for the Lieperts because Ron's young son had a pre-existing medical condition.
So Liepert returned quickly to Edmonton, joined Telus's head office, and settled into a house in North Glenora. Life was good, the children grew and Liepert looked at running for elected office.
After the merger of Telus and BC Tel in 1999, the family moved to Calgary. Liepert bought a downtown day-care centre and set up a communications business. An avid golfer, he joined the Pine Brooks Golf Club and began to circulate in Calgary's Tory circles with old friends from the Lougheed years.
Calgary had two Conservative camps in those days -- the Klein mafia still going strong, and the Jim Dinning circle biding its time for Ralph Klein to retire. Liepert joined Dinning, a longtime friend and former cabinet minister.
Liepert isn't a fan of Ralph Klein's, regarding the former premier as an opportunist -- "though not in the negative sense. He took advice well."
But Liepert is a firm believer in key aspects of the Klein revolution, mainly that the private sector does most things better than government, including running health care.
"In Lougheed's day there was an acceptance of government intrusion into the economy. I don't believe that's what is out there today.
"And I'm clearly not one who believes government can do anything better than individuals. So, where the opportunity exists to have non-government people do things, we should be looking at that."
So this fall, Liepert recruited a group of business executives from the oilsands, engineering companies, banking, accounting and legal firms for his new health-services board. That included highly successful Edmonton CEO Tony Franceschini, founder of Stantec.
"I want to trust the Tony Franceschinis who have had way more experience running $8-billion corporations than I have," Liepert says.
Handing traditional public works to the private sector is a hallmark of the Stelmach government. Stelmach pioneered the use of
P3s in Alberta, first on the Anthony Henday ring road and most recently with the massive P3 to plan and develop a new subdivision for Fort McMurray.
As education minister, Liepert quickly followed suit with a P3 to build 18 new schools.
In the months leading up to the 2004 election, Lougheed and Liepert met for breakfast, where Liepert announced his intentions.
"I was slightly surprised," Lougheed says. "I knew his bluntness and candour, and there would be times it would cause him some turmoil." But the old boss was "strongly supportive."
"I told him it's a great asset to the people to have someone with your knowledge and ability," says Lougheed, who describes Liepert as a pragmatist when it comes to public policy.
"He knows there is a proper role for government," Lougheed says.
As for Liepert's penchant these days for bringing down policy without public consultation, Lougheed notes that Liepert has a tough portfolio and "it takes time. You have to consult and listen, and I think as time goes on more and more of that will occur."
Brent Shervey, a close friend and former colleague from the premier's office, ran Liepert's 2008 campaign. Liepert is hard-working and very approachable at the door, he says. The candidate didn't hesitate to engage people in debate, says Shervey, and he didn't always win.
"In the end, he'd say to them, 'Tell you what: I've been to your door. If anyone else shows up, vote for them. Otherwise vote for me.' "
Liepert's big break in public life -- the leap from rookie backbencher into cabinet in December 2006 -- has its origins partly in those years in Calgary. He worked on Jim Dinning's leadership campaign team (along with Klein operative Rod Love) in preparation for the
December contest. When Stelmach defeated Dinning, the premier pulled the hard-working Liepert into the education post as a gesture to the defeated Dinning camp.
Liepert's characteristic bluntness didn't take long to surface. Just weeks into his job as education minister, Alberta teachers were ready to battle over pension negotiations.
Stelmach had asked Liepert to find a solution to a long-standing and growing liability in the teachers' pension plan. In a high-handed opening gambit, Liepert went to the teachers' annual assembly in April 2007 and announced a "gift" of $25 million with strings attached -- the money to ease pension obligations could only go to beginning teachers.
"It was a clear case of divide and conquer," says Alberta Teachers' Association president Frank Bruseker, and the rank and file didn't like the "my way or the highway" attitude. With 90 per cent of contracts up for renegotiation that summer, there were soon rumblings of a possible strike.
In June, a surprised Bruseker got a call from Liepert's boss, Ed Stelmach. The premier was looking for a way to settle. He reversed Liepert's edict on the $25 million and told the ATA to use the money for all teachers. The two sides agreed to a negotiating committee from the ATA and Alberta Education
In November, when the deal was reached, Liepert was on a plane to Japan. He profoundly disagrees with the view he was playing politics, and says the settlement came out of his department.
For a politician with media roots, Liepert has surprisingly low regard for the press in politics. That's perhaps only rivalled by his disdain for the opposition. Both, he says, are just too negative.
Take, for instance, the scrum on Thursday, Nov. 23, the day Liepert announced the members of the new Health Services Board.
It was 1:30 p.m. and Liepert was heading into the legislature for question period. A CTV reporter stepped up and asked about a potential conflict of interest over the appointment of Franceschini to the health-services board -- an issue raised initially by the NDP, who noted that Stantec has major contracts for hospital construction with the health department.
Liepert rolled his eyes, refused to answer and walked away muttering "give me a break." So why not just answer the question?
"Well, (the reporter) is some guy I don't even know and the first thing he asks me is some negative question ... about someone who has accomplished more in his lifetime than the whole pack of media guys are ever going to accomplish in their lifetime. And it offends me, so I'm not going to give the guy the time of day."
He's equally dismissive of the NDP for raising the question.
"Screw the NDP, we got our majority," he adds.
"I'm way more combative than Lougheed ever was," he admits.
But Lougheed never really had an opposition, adds Liepert.
In the house, he doesn't hesitate to hit below the belt, accusing former Kevin Taft, for instance, of never having a real job -- an accusation full of irony, given that Liepert, like the former Liberal leader, has run his own consulting firm and worked in government.
Dave Eggen, a former New Democrat MLA, now runs Friends of Medicare. When Liberal health critic Hugh MacDonald asked Liepert why he hadn't appointed anyone from the health consumer side to the health-services board, Liepert ignored conventions of confidentiality and shot back that Eggen had applied but was found not to be a suitable candidate.
Eggen was taken aback at the revelation and demanded an apology for the breach of confidentiality. He didn't get it, but he wasn't too surprised.
As education critic, Eggen had sparred with Liepert. At times it was jocular, and other times antagonistic and bullying.
"He's got the confidence to make tough decisions, but he needs people on-side," Eggen says. "This is a huge public entity."
The trouble is, Liepert approaches his job with an assumption that he's "unassailable" thanks to the massive Conservative majority, so he sees no need to bring together all kinds of opinions or consult other groups in carrying out reform, Eggen says.
"The health system needs reforming, but I fear what Liepert has in mind is a hijacking of the system. There's lots of money to be made in private delivery."
It's unclear how much of this reform agenda is Liepert's alone and how much is Stelmach's. It's certainly a convenient good-cop, bad-cop political partnership. Liepert is out front and will take the flak if the public starts to resist. Stelmach, who needed a tough guy from Calgary to shake up health care, can decide when to step in and play the hero. That's how it worked with the teachers' pension issue.
Liepert insists the caucus fully supports his moves. Certainly, if Edmonton Tory MLAs felt any heat when Liepert abolished Capital Health last summer, they're not talking about it. Though there's been some fence-mending since, there were rumblings last summer that this episode did as much damage in Edmonton as the royalty increase did in Calgary.
Heather Smith, president of the nurses' union, says it would be a mistake to view this as solely Liepert's agenda. It's a continuation of the Klein agenda "by covert operations," she charges.
Albertans will wake up to find the "Third Way" of two-tier medicine, rejected by the Tory caucus in 2006, is taking shape. If that's the case -- and Liepert rejects that notion -- there could be political battles ahead.
As he looks over his career, Liepert is pretty happy with the way life turned out for himself. Of the six kids who started at the one room school in Saskatchewan, Liepert says he's gone the furthest and been the most successful, and that includes those who got university degrees.
"I've always said I have a degree in hard knocks and I don't make any apologies for it, and I'm not sure if I had a university degree I'd be as smart as I am today.
"If you don't have common sense, what the hell good does a university degree do to you?"
To work your way from a modest farm to the top echelons of provincial politics is a no small feat, but it's what makes this country wonderful, he says.
"I look at myself and sort of say, 'If I can achieve what I believe I have achieved, that's what so great about this country.' ... Anybody can do it if they put their mind to it and have determination and work for it.''