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Politics: Smitherman’s retail politics

Provincial health minister loves to campaign

With the threat of a federal election in the air, George Smitherman is standing outside downtown subway stations shaking hands and passing out glossy red flyers.

Some Toronto Centre-Rosedale constituents are confused. Yes, Smitherman is provincial. Yes, he’s the health minister. But this is a man who loves to campaign; he calls it “retail politics.” For the last few years, he’s spent this week in November “being accessible” in his constituency, including swinging by the Xtra office.

“What’s up? What are people talking about?” wonders the openly gay Liberal.

Well, here’s what Smitherman’s talking about.

He has three new bills about to be introduced in the legislature, one on regulating traditional Chinese medicine, one on long-term care homes and one on handing over health services control to community-based organizations — all sure to be controversial. There’s also the provincial support for Church St’s Hassle Free Clinic and other community health centres like $20 million to Sherbourne Health Centre, which is quite queer.

He also doesn’t mind talking about his latest loose-cannon episode, where he called some optometrists “terrorists” because they are opposed to his decision to cut eye exams from OHIP coverage.

“I offered an apology before anyone asked and if that’s not good enough for [Conservative opposition leader] John Tory, I don’t really give a shit.” Though he describes his sometimes cavalier approach as forceful, he does admit “there are lots of opportunities to be nicer.”

About his reluctance to reinstate Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) for transsexual people without being ordered to by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Smitherman’s got his shtick down pat: “We’ll abide direction from any ruling” — as if he couldn’t preempt a ruling by coughing up the dough.

He admits his ministry’s recent decision to restrict funding for hormone therapy was misinformed. The research that suggested that access be limited to women experiencing extreme postmenopausal symptoms didn’t take into account that trans people use hormones, too. He’s asked staff to look into it.

“I don’t know how it will reach a resolution but we want to move as quickly as we can,” says Smitherman.

Asked about his personal life, the effusive Smitherman suddenly suffers from a withering vocabulary.

Are you single? “No.” How long? “A few months.” How is it? “Great.” Do you play tennis with him? “Not yet.”

Finally, a way to make Smitherman all shy and sheepish. Tory take note.