I'm Eating My Cookie
It had to be one of the most memorable media gaffes in Alberta's history, but its ten-year anniversary came and went without a mention. I'm talking about Stephen Duckett's "I'm eating my cookie" charade that cost him his job.
You might be surprised to learn that the work Duckett did many years ago could put Alberta in a better position to immunize people next year when the coronavirus vaccine starts getting distributed.
Ten years after he was fired for not wanting to talk to reporters, his work may actually help us in the pandemic.
How It Went Down
Raj Sherman was a part-time emergency room doctor and a Conservative MLA. He had just crossed the floor to sit as an Independent, saying he could no longer serve as a member of the governing Conservatives because the health care system was in such a terrible mess.
The media went into overdrive looking for reaction from Sherman’s bombshell move. One person reporters couldn’t talk to was the President and CEO of Alberta Health Services Stephen Duckett, who had been brought in from Australia and billed as a health care guru. He had experience in making changes to get systems running more efficiently. Unfortunately for Duckett, the advance billing wasn’t translating into quick results in Alberta.
On Friday, November 19, 2010 several reporters camped out on the second floor of the Matrix Hotel in downtown Edmonton, right across the street from the headquarters of Alberta Health Services. They knew Duckett was in a meeting at the hotel and they were going to wait until he came out.
Duckett knew it too and for some reason, he decided to grab a large oatmeal raisin cookie on his way out of the meeting room. He figured since his mouth was full, he wouldn’t be able to comment to the waiting media.
It didn’t go as planned.
Paying the Price
I remember that Friday afternoon. I was working in my home office and saw the clip on the Twitter feed of CTV Edmonton minutes after it happened. I immediately sensed he was in trouble. The changes he was making at Alberta Health Services had become so politicized and angered so many people, a flippant display like that in front of the media might cost him his job.
Four days later, he was fired by the Board of Directors he reported to. Three Board members, including one I knew quite well, resigned from the Board saying there was political pressure to fire Duckett and they could no longer serve on the Board because of it.
Three years later, then Health Minister Fred Horne fired the entire Board for ignoring his directive to cancel bonuses that were to be paid to senior AHS executives.
A Media Training Staple
I used the Duckett video early in my media training career as a great example of “how not to do it.” I was surprised at how many people in other parts of the country had never seen it, proving once again how some news events can seem to be extremely important in one market, but not another.
All Duckett needed to do on that Friday afternoon was say he doesn’t comment on political comments and remind reporters that the Health Minister had already commented on behalf of the government. Duckett then could have easily bridged to talking about the afternoon news conference that would include improvements to the health care system. This was being discussed at the meeting Duckett was at in the hotel. A couple more answers that didn’t get him into trouble and reporters would have realized that was all they were going to get from him. He could have then strolled across the street to his office. Media Relations 101.
Duckett chose to go another route, likely because he was fed up with dealing with budget cuts and the political interference he didn’t expect when he signed up for the job. He should have known better, but he walked away with a payout of $735,630. Not a bad parting gift from Alberta and Canada, before going back to Australia a couple of years later.
Now For Something Really Bizarre......
Ten years later, here’s the irony in the whole Duckett situation. What he had been brought into do was lead the establishment of a strong provincially-led health care system that would reduce redundancy and save money.
If you remember, at the time there were regional health Boards that called many of their own shots and worked with their own budgets. The Calgary and Edmonton regional systems were massive and their CEO’s were paid in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Whether we’ve been getting better health care at a lower cost is something we can debate, but just the other day I heard how Alberta is in an excellent position to distribute the coronavirus vaccine because we have one health system. In Ontario there are many regional health boards, very much like we used to have in Alberta. The moves made when Duckett was CEO could actually pay off next year when the vaccine is rolled out.
Ten years after Duckett was fired for the cookie controversy, let’s remember how he was part of something that led to us being far better off to deal with the pandemic than we would have been under the previous system. As much as we may not like the political leadership we’ve been getting, at least we’re getting one message instead of many.
Dr. Duckett is a health care consultant in Australia and is now credited with playing a role in the effective way Australia has literally wiped out the virus after taking some drastic measures earlier this year.
Just last week, Raj Sherman talked openly about the health challenges he's faced after contracting COVID. Ten years after kicking off a controversy that cost Duckett his job, Sherman is trying to recover from an illness that he couldn't have imagined a decade ago.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me – I’m eating my cookie.
Video courtesy of CTV Edmonton
I created and uploaded some new videos to the media training page of my website last week, so check them out.