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Canada's brief spring of pandemic-imposed political harmony seems to be winding down –



An international polling firm recently asked citizens of each of the G7 countries to identify their most reliable source of information about the novel coronavirus outbreak. In France, Germany, Italy and Japan, the top choice was “TV news,” while the largest number of Americans chose their doctors and health care providers.

In Canada, a plurality — 30 per cent — said their most trusted source was “government/politicians,” a figure rivalled only by the 28 per cent of British citizens who said the same about their political leaders. In the United States, just 10 per cent identified government and politicians as their preferred source of information.

Whatever goodwill Canadian officials have won over the last two months could become all the more valuable now as the country moves into a new phase of the crisis. But that trust and unity also might become much harder for governments to maintain — particularly if we’re already seeing the start of the first real political divisions of the pandemic.

The recent uptick in support and approval for elected leaders doesn’t necessarily mark a reversal of the long-term trend toward declining levels of trust in Western societies. “When we’re anxious,” one American political scientist said recently, “we need to put our trust in someone to protect us.”

How governments earn trust

But it does at least suggest we’re still capable of trusting political leaders. And there are also probably some good reasons for this warming trend in public trust.

Non-partisan health officials — people with real expertise — have been put front and centre by Canadian governments to explain what is happening and what needs to be done. Federal and provincial political leaders have repeated consistent messages that echo the experts’ advice. Citizens have been asked to make significant sacrifices, but governments have cushioned that hardship with extra support that has, for the most part, been delivered expeditiously.

Each of those pieces reinforces the other to build trust and hold things together. A sense of common cause — “stronger together” — might one day be remembered as the defining feeling of the first two months of the pandemic in Canada.

But what if shutting down most of the economy and largely confining people to their homes was the easy part?

How safe do you feel, Canada?

Maintaining public trust will be even more vital now. Though the premiers and the federal government have started to lay out plans and principles for “reopening” society, the resumption of economic activity is going to depend on people feeling it’s safe enough to go into stores, restaurants and schools.

As British Columbia Premier John Horgan pointed out this week, “all of the businesses that have been shuttered could open tomorrow and if the public, the consuming public, is not confident in their personal well-being, they’re not going to enter those establishments.”

To that end, the Ontario government has released a series of new guidelines for businesses and has promised that provincial inspectors will enforce those standards.

“Today is a glimmer of hope,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and he’s “optimistic” that in the near future more businesses will be able to open up safely. 0:52

Still, the potential for new outbreaks remains; federal modelling continues to assume that there will be periodic bumps in the infection rate throughout the fall and winter. Enhanced testing and contact tracing may limit the impact of those outbreaks, but Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said this week that his province’s plan will be subject to change and, in some cases, restrictions may have to be re-imposed.

We’re sharing the costs — but not the risks

While provinces aligned their approaches to shutting down schools and businesses fairly quickly, there is a risk now that provincial approaches could start to diverge — as exemplified by Quebec’s relatively aggressive plan to reopen schools in May.

Just as the virus has exposed vulnerabilities in the health care system, particularly for elderly Canadians in long-term care centres, the reopening could also expose inequalities in work and life — between those who have access to child care and those who don’t, those who can afford to stay home and those who can’t, and those whose jobs put them at greater risk and those who are relatively safe. Already, there have been serious outbreaks in a meat processing plant in Alberta and among migrant workers at a farm in Ontario.

A masked staffer works a Walmart checkout line. The pandemic’s effects are being worsened by economic inequality, since many Canadians can’t afford to stay away from jobs that put them at risk of infection. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

“I think there will be an emerging divide between people who can choose when and how much to change their social distancing and those who can’t,” said Jennifer Robson, a professor and policy analyst at Carleton university and one of a number of academics to be consulted by the federal government.

Political tensions start to rise

There’s also a political split opening up over the possibility that government aid to the unemployed might be discouraging people from returning to work.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said this week that his province is “fighting against a federal program that is actually paying people to stay out of the workforce right now” — an apparent reference to the federal supports that provide up to $2,000 per month to those who are out of work because of COVID-19.

In fact, for most Canadians, the most powerful incentive to stay home probably will continue to be a highly contagious and deadly virus. But if a significant number of businesses aren’t able to find people willing to work, the role and design of government aid could become a significant point of contention.

The tools that have served governments well so far — transparency, regular updates, readily available financial supports and actions based on an abundance of caution — might continue to be useful in the weeks ahead. Opinion polling also suggests that Canadians are in no great rush to reopen the economy.

But the longer this virus is with us, the more things will emerge with the potential to grind away at public trust and break things apart.

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The politics of a pandemic – POLITICO



Guest host Eugene Daniels talks with national political correspondent David Siders about how, three months in, the coronavirus crisis is simultaneously upending and reaffirming political allegiances.

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Bike Share a Victim of Anti-Urban Identity Politics – Raise the Hammer



Bike Share a Victim of Anti-Urban Identity Politics

Strategy only makes sense if we’re all trying to build on our common values and interests, and the zero-sum politics of resentment are antithetical to common values.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 28, 2020

With 1,000 bikes, 26,000 active members and 350,000 passenger trips a year, Hamilton Bike Share is a bargain at a gross annual operating cost of $700,000. But Hamilton City Council cannot resist the atavistic urge to put identity politics ahead of strategic planning.

Hamilton Bike Share hub at Chedoke Golf Course

After yet another ultramarathon session of ocean-boiling hyperbolic bikeshedding over a project with utterly miniscule costs – we are talking, after all, about 0.02 percent of the city’s annual budget – Council deadlocked on whether to fund the continued operation of Hamilton Bike Share for the rest of the year.

Instead, Councillors voted to spend an unknown amount of money to warehouse the bikes once the system shuts down on June 1. Amazingly, the motion by Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann would have funded the system using money already earmarked for local spending in wards 1, 2 and 3.

That is to say, the councillors opposed to this motion voted to overrule the wards 1-3 councillors spending money from their own dedicated ward capital reserves to keep the program running.

This is a gross double standard and the kind of anti-urban hypocrisy that has been drearily common over the past two decades since amalgamation.

Legacy of Anti-Urban Resentment

The most vocal anti-urban sentiment has been from angry suburban leaders who never wanted to get bolted onto Hamilton through amalgamation (but were happy to have Hamilton subsidize their infrastructure through regional government, of course).

But amalgamation – which was imposed on all of us by the Conservative Mike Harris government – has left the old city subject to the one-way whims and caprices of anti-urban resentment and grievance, which suburban councillors openly embody and shamelessly encourage to this day.

The framing of every issue in us-vs-them terms is deliberate and debilitating for a city trying to build common ground and move forward.

In the face of such grievance-based identity politics, strategic plans don’t matter. Strategy only makes sense if we’re all trying to build on our common values and interests, and the zero-sum politics of resentment are antithetical to common values.

Likewise, the facts don’t matter. This decision isn’t about making the most cost-effective use of scarce resources, it’s about driving a wedge into the body politic and pandering for rhetorical points against the ‘other’, no matter the actual cost.

Nor is consistency a factor. Many of the councillors complaining that bike share doesn’t serve their wards are the same councillors who only agreed to allow it in the first place as long as it didn’t go in their wards.

Stubborn Refusal to Learn and Grow

Facts and arguments need to take root in a worldview to influence our decisions. The angry, anti-urban worldview that drives Hamilton’s identity politics is stony ground indeed. It is the place where so many transformative ideas go to die.

Anti-urban resentment is a failing strategy for Hamilton as a whole, but it works well for the cynical politicians who stoke it. Keeping their constituents misinformed and bitter keeps them employed even as it harms the city as a whole – including their constituents, who deserve better.

On the rare occasion where an inclusive urban project actually goes ahead and is successful, that just makes the aggrieved anti-urban haters even more bitter and resentful. It certainly doesn’t inspire them to reconsider their opposition to it.

For example, how many lower-city one-way dead zones do we need to convert into vibrant two-way people places before the haters finally acknowledge that city streets work better when they are more inclusive?

How many new protected two-way cycle tracks have to fill up with cyclists before we are willing to acknowledge that there is a huge latent demand for safe cycling infrastructure?

Identity Politics Trumps Strategy

Bike Share was widely (by the haters) expected to be a total failure. Instead, pound for pound it has been one of the most successful systems in North America: built and operated on a shoestring budget, it achieved 26,000 active members and 350,000 trips a year.

Far from mollifying the critics, its success just made them hate it even more. Bike Share has had a target on its back since the day it launched.

How do you reason with bad faith? How do you negotiate with malice? How do you build on a foundation of cynicism, grievance and deliberate misinformation? After close to two decades of caring about what happens in this city, I am no closer to a workable answer now than I was in 2003.

This city is broken. I have no idea how we can fix it. But until we do, every new project faces a hurricane of resistance, every existing project lives in existential jeopardy and each tiny step we take upward is on a slurry of unstable land that is itself inexorably sliding backwards.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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Liberals' ability to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny plays into system of 'image politics,' critics say – National Post



OTTAWA — The Liberal government has avoided months of parliamentary scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead using televised daily briefings with the prime minister to further its system of “image politics,” an expert in democratic process says.

The Liberals and New Democratic Party agreed earlier this week to suspend parliamentary proceedings until September 21, equipping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a “tremendous amount of power over the summer,” said Kathy Brock, professor at Queen’s University.

The decision comes after Trudeau has for months appeared in the House of Commons on a limited basis, instead using his daily briefings outside Rideau Cottage to announce major new spending measures and take questions from the media.

He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model

“This government is very focused on messaging and image politics and that meant that it wanted to respond to the needs of Canadians when the pandemic came up,” said Brock, who has served in various advisory roles to all three major political parties over the last 30 years.

“But when they started to face criticism for not acting as quickly as possible, the prime minister turned to the easiest tool, which is having briefings with the media outside Rideau Cottage,” she said.

The approach has been met with criticism by opposition parties and parliamentary experts, who say politicians have not had adequate time to press the Trudeau government on some of its largest spending measures, which now top an estimated $150 billion. They also say the government overreached in an earlier attempt to equip itself with the authority to tax, spend and loan money with almost no parliamentary oversight for nearly two years, well beyond the expected timeframe of the pandemic.

Other observers point out that Parliament would typically rise for the summer months regardless, and that “hybrid” forms of Question Period, which include virtual questions and answer sessions, have continued for the past few months.

“The cut-off in June is not an aberration,” said Lori Turnbull, professor of political science at Dalhousie University. However, she questioned “why there’s such a desire” to close off access to other forms of scrutiny, like private members bills or written questions to Parliament.

Turnbull, like others, has been surprised by the Liberals’ ability to secure the support of opposition parties to restrict in-person sittings of Commons.

“Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government,” she said, “It’s incredible what this government has done. We usually see more push and pull between the opposition and the government.”

The NDP has faced criticism for making an agreement with the Liberal party to suspend Parliament because it allows for the government to sidestep proper scrutiny.

NDP House leader Peter Julian pushed back against those claims in an interview Thursday, saying the deal secured four sitting days in the House of Commons during the summer — a provision that other parties were not pushing for.

“There’s been a lot of exaggeration,” Julian said.

Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government

The NDP opposed a Conservative proposal that would have had regular in-person sittings in the Commons well into June, in which a select group of roughly 50 people would attend in order to maintain social distancing measures. The proposal would have allowed Parliament to exert its full powers before summer break, but Julian argued it would have needlessly excluded the majority of MPs in Canada.

“I think it’s a very Ottawa-centric interpretation,” he said.

A spokesperson for Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez reiterated that all parties agreed to the March 13 motion to suspend Parliament until April 20. The agreement with the NDP allows for the continuation of a special COVID-19 committee that meets several times a week, but is not afforded the regular powers of the House.

“We believe it is a responsible plan that ensures accountability and transparency, and respects public health advice,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.

Candice Bergen, Conservative House leader, said there has been a push for months by the Liberal government to avoid regular parliamentary sittings. MPs in recent weeks had been sitting in-person on a limited basis once a week.

Conservative House leader Candice Bergen.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/File

“I was clear with Pablo that we felt Parliament needed to resume,” Bergen said. “But that was clearly not what the government wanted and they found a dance partner in the NDP.”

She said Trudeau has instead opted to convey the Liberals approach to COVID-19 through the televised briefings at his official residence, where media ask daily questions.

“He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model,” Bergen said, adding that media “is not a substitute for the official Opposition.”

Brock, at Queen’s University, said the Rideau Cottage meetings give Trudeau more time to craft his own message on a daily basis, unimpeded, while taking only a select number of questions from journalists.

“It certainly operates in the Liberals’ favour, because they’re receiving media attention and it seems very positive because they’re responding to a crisis,” she said. “But it means that they aren’t getting tough questions to the same extent on other, lesser known files.”

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