NDP leadership candidate touts healthy society

Matt Gardner
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Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidate Ryan Meili used his trip to Prince Albert on Sunday to explain what he calls his “vision for a healthy society.”

Following an evening of food and live music at the Arts Centre, Meili took the stage to talk to the audience about his campaign and his ideas for changing the focus of political debate.

A trained physician, Meili made a career out of promoting health long before he ran for elected office. But his concept of a healthy society extends far beyond the subject of health care.

“Right now our politics either is focused solely on economic goals, or really just kind of seems to lack a focus at all,” Meili said in an earlier interview. “We bounce from crisis to crisis without really a sense of a common project, a goal for our society. And so what I’m proposing is using … human health outcomes as that goal, (which) actually helps us to focus our politics in a way that’s more functional.”

He added: “When we talk about health in politics, we’re usually talking about health care. But really I’m talking about actual outcomes -- whether our lives are shorter or longer, whether they’re of better quality or not. And the things that make the biggest difference in that, it’s not health care. It’s income, education, employment, housing, nutrition, the stuff of politics.

“So this is really just a way of sort of refocusing the debate, reframing the debate around a better goal.”

By striving for this vision, Meili hopes to initiate an era of “evidence-based policy development” in Saskatchewan.

The evidence-based approach is a product of the medical profession. Where historically physicians might prescribe treatments based on what seemed to make sense or what had been done before, today doctors are expected to be familiar with the studies and research behind different conditions and the treatments available for them.

Meili noted that the same change had not taken place in politics. Elected officials, he said, still tend to make decisions based on what’s popular in the polls or “what somebody’s selling us behind the scenes” instead of methodically determining the goals they hope to achieve, the potential obstacles and available options.

“I do think that this idea of reframing the conversation around a healthy society, and using the determinants of health as our model for how we do politics as a way of shifting into evidence-based policy and (re-energizing) democracy … really is a different way of talking about politics,” Meili said.

Unions are to my mind a very important element of that healthy society. Ryan Meili

Where economic policy is concerned, the candidate wants to expand the province’s economic base away from dependence on resource-based industries subject to the whims of the market.

Instead, he aims to further develop the knowledge economy, re-introduce a Department of Co-ops to promote co-operative industries and make affordable housing a priority.

He also put forward the idea of SaskPharm – a Crown Corporation that would produce generic drugs inside the province to lower health care costs and develop more opportunities for industry.

One looming issue in provincial politics is the Wall government’s expected labour review, which would have a significant effect on NDP supporters within the trade unions. Collective bargaining rights are an important element of Meili’s vision.

“Unions are to my mind a very important element of that healthy society,” he said. “Where you have greater levels of workers’ rights, you have better incomes for the middle class and more equality overall, and as a result, better health outcomes.

“Yet we’re very unpopular. The union movement is very unpopular. So what’s going on there? And I really think we need to be talking about what are the next, positive things that can happen for the workers’ movement. Rather than just trying to defend what we have, we need to be talking about where can we go next.”

Meili also promoted the “healthy society” concept during his last race for the Saskatchewan NDP leadership position in 2009.

Since then, he has retained the same focus while further developing it through his continued work in medicine, through his research as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and in a national position as vice-chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare.

He also wrote a book on the subject, A Healthy Society: How a Focus on Health Can Revive Canadian Democracy.

“I’m the same guy,” Meili said. “I’ve just been doing it a little bit longer and digging into it a little bit more deeply, which hopefully allows me to articulate this vision more clearly yet.”

Organizations: Saskatchewan NDP, Arts Centre, Crown University of Saskatchewan Medicare Healthy Society

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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