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McKenna’s handling of Ottawa Hospital relocation showed ‘lack of political experience,’ say Liberal insiders

By Abbas Rana      

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s lack of political experience 'didn’t help the situation,' says former Ottawa mayor Jim Durrell.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna received criticism from political insiders for the way she handled the politically sensitive issue of the new location of the Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s decision to push for the consultation process on the future location of the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus and support Tunney’s Pasture as the best location of the $2-billion “super hospital” were “unforced errors” due to “lack of political experience,” and now she has to live with the political fallout, say political insiders, including some Liberals.

“I’m sure if she had to do it over again, she probably would’ve done it differently,” Jim Durrell, Ottawa’s mayor from 1985-1991, said in an interview with The Hill Times.

Without any public consultation, the Conservatives had announced in November 2014 that the new Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital would be built on the Central Experimental Farm. During the last election campaign, Ms. McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) pledged that if the Liberals came to power, the new government would revisit the decision of the future location of the hospital.

The Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital and the Central Experimental Farm are both located in the federal riding of Ottawa Centre. After coming to power, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.), the minister responsible for the National Capital Commission, tasked the National Capital Commission to conduct a public consultation process and make a recommendation about the best location to build the hospital.

In the consultation process that cost $100,000 with 8,000 people consulted, the NCC recommended Tunney’s Pasture as the site best suited for the new hospital. Most locally elected politicians at the three levels of government who spoke on the matter, the Ottawa Hospital board, and political observers rejected this choice because of concerns related to reduced access to the potential site, higher costs, and longer construction timelines. But Ms. McKenna, a rookie Liberal MP, enthusiastically and publicly supported the recommended site, which is also located in her riding.

“It is great news that, having concluded their review of potential sites for the new Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital, the National Capital Commission (NCC) has recommended a modern, state-of-the-art health facility to be located in the downtown core at Tunney’s Pasture,” Ms. McKenna said in a press release on Nov. 24.

“I would like to thank the NCC for their hard work on this file, and welcome the recommendation the NCC board approved today.”

But five local Liberal MPPs—Bob Chiarelli, Yasir Naqvi, John Fraser, Marie-France Lalonde, and Nathalie Des Rosiers—opposed the chosen site and said the NCC recommendation should be reconsidered.

“This is a significant investment in our health-care system and the quality of life for all Ottawa residents,” said the five MPPs in their joint statement. “It is extremely important that we get it right to avoid lengthy delays to the rollout of this project, and we believe that this recommendation needs to be reconsidered.”

The Ottawa Hospital board also rejected the recommended new location: “After hearing from the patients and citizens of the national capital region and eastern Ontario, and after completing our own analysis of the NCC report, we cannot in good faith support Tunney’s Pasture as the future location for the Civic campus. As a result, last night at a meeting of the board, the governors unanimously passed a motion to not support the NCC board recommendation,” the hospital board said in a statement.

About a week after the NCC’s recommendation, local politicians from the three levels of government and the Ottawa Hospital worked out a compromise and chose the site of the former Sir John Carling Building, near Dow’s Lake, as the new location instead of the Tunney’s Pasture. To announce the new decision, elected politicians from all three levels of government held a press conference at the City Hall on Dec. 2. At the press conference, Ms. McKenna “fielded a few questions, dodged several more, then left out a side door with her staff,” according to Ottawa Sun.

“There are many on the political scene who point to McKenna as aggravating the situation by pushing Tunney’s as the best location without the support of the hospital, her political colleagues, or the public,” wrote Ottawa Citizen and Sun columnist Susan Sherring on Dec. 2. “And let’s face it: admitting a mistake from time to time can actually be disarming-and downright charming if done right.”

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.), who has been critical of the way Liberals handled the issue and asked several questions in the Question Period over the last year on this subject, was not available for an interview with The Hill Times last week. However, in an interview with the CBC Ottawa, he described the compromise on the new location as “a political rescue mission that wasted time and money.”

“The hospital had already performed a very thorough study through an expert panel that had selected the big open field right across the street [of the current location] as the preferred option,” Mr. Poilievre told the CBC Ottawa.

“The previous Conservative government simply accepted the hospital decision of the hospital. Then the federal Liberals interfered, delayed, tried to strong-arm the hospital into the wrong location, and now today they’re trying to save face.”

In interviews with The Hill Times, senior Liberals considered it a “political mistake” to start the consultation process and involve the NCC in the decision-making process on an issue where a decision was already made in November 2014 by the then-Conservative government.

One source familiar with behind-the-scenes talks on this issue said the way politicians and the Ottawa Hospital worked out a compromise on the Sir John Carling site is how “they should have done this in the first place.” This source argued that once you start public consultations on a politically sensitive issue, “there will always be some vocal opponents who will oppose whatever the outcome,” and it will always result in “controversy.”

Also, local Liberals said Ms. Joly should have sought input from all Ottawa-area MPs and MPPs one-by-one to get their opinion on the potential new site for the hospital, which the Heritage minister did not. These sources said it was “disappointing that [Ms.] Joly only listened to McKenna.”

“Whatever Melanie Joly did say or do, it all came from Catherine McKenna,” said a second Liberal source, pointing out that the hospital may be located in Ottawa Centre, but patients from all parts of the city go to this hospital and all elected politicians should have been consulted by the Heritage minister. “It was all unnecessary what we all had to go through. We lost a bit of political capital because of that.” The source did not want to publicly criticize the Liberals.

In a brief interview with The Hill Times, Ms. Joly did not directly respond to questions on why she did not consult Ottawa-area MPs one-by-one and why she “only listened to” Ms. McKenna.

“There was a clear consensus that came out of different leaders of the region and I’m very proud to say that I’ve listened to that consensus and I’ve informed my officials to make sure that the Sir John Carling site be available for the construction by the Ontario government of this new hospital,” Ms. Joly said. “I’m very happy to say that there’s a clear consensus and I’m always very happy to see that there’s great team playing.”

Liberal MP David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.), in an interview with The Hill Times, conceded that Ottawa-area Liberal MPs were not consulted individually, but said he “couldn’t be happier with the outcome.”

“This demonstrates for me one of the first occasions I can recall in my life when all levels of government and a hospital corporation and other interested stakeholders have come together to agree on a really important choice for the next 100 years for the region,” said Mr. McGuinty, chairman of the National Capital Region Liberal caucus.

He said Ms. McKenna left the press conference early because she was on House duty.

Ms. McKenna was out of the country last week but in an emailed statement she said: “Our government’s goal, and my primary aim as MP for Ottawa Centre on this matter, has always been to ensure that we do what is necessary to allow the hospital and the province to move forward with the planning and funding required for a centrally located hospital that would meet the needs of the community for the next 100 years. I heard clearly from constituents in Ottawa Centre that they want a new Civic Campus to be located in the downtown core and easily accessible by public transit, while also protecting the green space on the Experimental Farm.”

Ms. McKenna also said in the statement she was pleased to work with other local politicians to come up with the compromise on the future location of the Ottawa Hospital.

“The NCC identified two centrally located areas that did meet the criteria, Tunney’s Pasture and the Sir John Carling site. Following the NCC board recommendation of the Tunney’s Pasture site, it was apparent that there was not consensus on their preferred option and that the second option of the Sir John Carling site had broad support,” Ms. McKenna said. “All levels of government needed to be involved at arriving at a final decision, and I was very pleased to work with my federal caucus colleagues, the Honourable [Ottawa Centre MPP] Yasir Naqvi and his provincial colleagues, Mayor Jim Watson, along with the Ottawa Hospital for approaching this matter in a positive, thoughtful, and solutions-oriented way.”

Emery Huszka, president of National Farmers Union-Ontario in an interview with The Hill Times, said his organization was against the idea of building the new hospital on the Central Experimental Farm. He said members of his organization actively participated in the NCC’s consultation process, but now they’re happy with the agreed-upon new location of the hospital.

“It’s never a mistake consulting people,” said Mr. Huszka, a former Hill staffer. “We’re a fundamental democracy first and things evolve and things change. And the best way to come up with the best solution is to talk with everyone.”

Meanwhile, Liberal sources said that now Ms. McKenna will have to live with the political consequences that have “dented her political credibility,” but there are three more years until the next election and she has ample time to recover from this setback.

“I hope she would learn from her mistakes,” a third Liberal source said.

Mr. Durrell said it remains to be seen if Ms. McKenna’s political career has been negatively affected by this issue, but that more political experience would have helped her in handling this issue more prudently.

“It [lack of political experience] certainly didn’t help the situation,” said Mr. Durrell, adding that he does not know Ms. McKenna personally but have heard good things about her from those who do.

“In politics, people do a lots of good, people make mistakes, and good politicians recognize when they make a mistake. You recover quickly and you move on.”

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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