Bill Clinton waded into two of the most divisive political debates that have raged in Canada and the United States, praising the unity of one country and predicting health-care reform in the other.
The former U.S. president told an enthusiastic Canadian audience that his country is done squandering billions on health care and that a system overhaul is inevitable.
Clinton also ventured into Canadian domestic politics – saying he was thrilled that Quebec and Canada didn’t “get a divorce” in the 1990s.
Clinton, who as president delivered a historic speech on federalism without ever specifically mentioning Quebec, quipped Friday that one benefit of being out of politics was he could say whatever he wanted.
Clinton then flung himself into the hottest political debate raging in his own country, predicting that Barack Obama would succeed where he failed and would deliver on health-care reform.
He made the remarks to an adoring crowd of 700 that gathered to watch him receive an honourary doctorate from McGill University.
“It’s simply going to be impossible for us to build the world we need unless in the wealthy countries, we are ruthlessly honest about where we are wasting money and hanging on to yesterday’s way of doing things,” Clinton said.
“That’s why I think we’re going to get some kind of health-care reform in America today. Finally, the deniability ran out and all the bogus arguments don’t cut much mustard anymore.”
Clinton said he grew terribly frustrated when health insurance companies made a last-ditch effort to block reforms last week.
He noted that the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country, yet remains the only major developed nation that lacks universal health coverage.
Where Canadians spend about 10.5 per cent of their income on health care, he said, Americans spend a whopping 17 per cent.
“If you add it up, it amounts to a $900-billion handicap we take into the global economy,” he said.
In typical Clintonesque fashion, he punctuated his speech by rattling off a series of statistics indicating that the Swiss spent 11.5 per cent, and other major countries countries spent between nine and 10 per cent of their incomes on health care.
While he called it “immoral” that many Americans don’t have health insurance and that others who do have it risk losing it, he said the issue is really one of waste.
“Suppose you don’t care anything about those people. Forget about them. The heck with your neighbours,” he said.
“You’re spotting the competition $900 billion for nothing.”
Health care reform has long been a fractious issue south of the border where the idea of socialized medicine doesn’t sit well with even moderate conservatives who cast Canadian medicare as a bogeyman.
Clinton’s own attempt to usher in a national health plan during his first term in office ended in spectacular failure.
Months later, his Democrats suffered a major rout during mid-term elections and lost control of Congress, leaving Clinton with a legislative disadvantage for the rest of his presidency.
Clinton was in town Friday to accept the university’s highest honour – doctor of laws.
It was a far cry from the historic extemporaneous speech he delivered on Canadian federalism at a 1999 conference in Mont-Tremblant, Que., where he defended the merits of unity.
Speaking without notes at the time, he listed all the benefits of national unity but, to avoid creating a diplomatic incident, did it without uttering the words “Quebec” or “Canada.” As he looked on in frustration, sovereigntist premier Lucien Bouchard admitted the speech had not helped his cause.
Clinton was far more blunt in his speech Friday.
“The thing I always liked about Canada is that it seemed to me that in many ways it was like America – with one fundamental difference for the last 25 years,” Clinton said.
“You have clashing cultures, you have occasional votes about whether you ought not to be together.
“I’m glad you didn’t get a divorce, by the way.”
He then quipped: “That’s the great thing about not being president – you can say anything you want. Of course, nobody cares what you have to say anymore, but you can say it, at least.”
In his speech before alumni, volunteers and university officials, Clinton spoke of his philanthropic exploits and called for action on world hunger and climate change. He also encouraged volunteerism and community-building.
University officials said they did not pay a fee to bring the high-priced public speaker to the event and that it was arranged by an alumnus and close personal friend of the former president.
He is the second American president to get McGill’s most prestigious award.
Franklin D. Roosevelt received the degree, along with former British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1944 at the height of the Second World War.