Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.
The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.
“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.
“And nothing could be further from the truth.”
It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.
“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.
“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”
The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.
A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.
In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.
But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .
“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.
While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.
Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.
“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.
Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.
“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.
“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”
The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.
But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.
“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.
“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press
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Politics Briefing: Murray Sinclair to resign from Senate – The Globe and Mail
Senator Murray Sinclair says he’s ready to retire.
Mr. Sinclair announced this afternoon that he will step down from his position representing Manitoba in the Red Chamber in January, when he turns 70.
Mr. Sinclair is one of Canada’s most respected jurists, the second Indigenous judge in Canadian history and the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which delivered its landmark report in 2015 that included 94 calls for action to the federal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has committed to meet all 94 calls, appointed Mr. Sinclair to the Senate in 2016.
Mr. Sinclair told The Globe he still hopes to be a voice on the national stage, even if he is leaving Parliament Hill.
This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Chris Hannay. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter signup page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.
Mr. Trudeau says that even if Canada will not be among the first country to receive vaccines against COVID-19, Canadians should instead focus on the fact that most of the country could be inoculated against the virus by next fall.
The Liberal government will table its fall economic statement on Monday, which will give Canadians some idea of how large the deficit is. A C.D. Howe report suggests the government could dig its way out of debt again if it raised the GST.
Liberal and Conservative MPs shut down the pleas of the Canadian relatives of Boeing 737 Max crash victims for a public inquiry into the plane’s safety.
Eric Duncan, the first openly gay Conservative MP, pressed the Liberal government on why they haven’t followed through with election promises to end the ban on gay men giving blood.
And Ingenium, the Crown corporation that runs Canada’s national science museums, has a new acquisition: a bottle of billion-year-old water, which was discovered at the bottom of a mine near Timmins, Ont. “It’s a credit to our spirits that despite these challenging times, we can continue doing science and doing really, really cool things like getting a hold of a water sample that’s a billion years old,” Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said.
Robyn Urback (The Globe and Mail) on vaccine nationalism: “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approval rating is more than 14 points higher than it was this time last year, despite a tumultuous summer of scandal and enduring delays by the federal government to deliver programs such as comprehensive rapid COVID-19 testing at airports. That congeniality will run out, however, if and when Canadians are forced to watch peer nations start vaccinating their citizens while this country effectively remains in lockdown.”
Andrew Coyne (The Globe and Mail) on the vaccine challenges ahead: “At any rate, hold on – it can only get worse. Even assuming Health Canada parts with the habits of a lifetime and approves the first vaccine more or less simultaneously with its U.S. and European counterparts, and even assuming the vaccines can be shipped to Canada in advance of approval, and stored (in super-cold conditions) until then, that still leaves the ultimate logistical nightmare: getting them into the arms of millions of Canadians, safely and speedily.”
John Ibbitson (The Globe and Mail) on why the city of Ottawa has fared better in the pandemic than Toronto: “The capital may be, as the late Allan Fotheringham called it, the town that fun forgot, but it is also a town filled with well-educated people in white-collar jobs who mostly live in suburbs, work from home, and drive cars. That may not be a very exciting description of a city, but in a pandemic, it’s the place you want to be.”
Fariha Naqvi-Mohamed (Montreal Gazette) on the next few months: “This winter will be like no other. We need to be proactive in combatting isolation, seasonal depression and loneliness, which will only be exacerbated by the long, dark days ahead.”
Shachi Kurl (Ottawa Citizen) on battling COVID-19 fatigue: “No longer do we gush over cool scientists who wear Fluevog shoes and periodic table dresses. They’ve started to sound like mom. I love my mom; she is the best. She reminds me daily to take my vitamins. I confess, I’ve tuned her out too.”
OPINION | The politics behind Jason Kenney's 'tepid' response to COVID-19 – CBC.ca
This column is an opinion from political scientists Duane Bratt, of Mount Royal University, and Lisa Young, of the University of Calgary.
Jason Kenney is a shrewd and experienced politician.
He has years of experience as a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, and was instrumental in helping Harper win a majority in 2011. Returning to Alberta politics, he successfully merged the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties and won a resounding victory in the 2019 provincial election.
And yet, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, he and his government are floundering.
Alberta has the largest absolute number of COVID cases in Canada, despite having the fourth largest population. For 10 days in mid-November, Kenney did not appear in public despite rapidly increasing case counts, hospitalizations and deaths.
Eight months into the pandemic, his cabinet had to meet for eight hours to devise responses that many dismissed as inadequate. And most recently, a public servant has taken the unusual move of leaking information to journalists to highlight the growing divide between the Kenney government and its chief medical officer of health.
Opinion polling shows that the Kenney government is paying a price for its handling of the pandemic.
Even in the early days of COVID-19, it was noticeable that the Kenney government missed out on the “COVID bump” that most other political leaders enjoyed. This was despite the fact that, in many ways, the Alberta government had responded effectively to the first wave.
But unlike other provincial governments, Kenney and his cabinet were engaged in a very public fight with doctors at a time when the public was banging pots and pans in appreciation of front-line workers.
Not taking a lesson from this, the government engaged in a broader dispute with health-care workers through the fall, and its poll numbers continued to drop.
A slide in public support
Last week, Leger reported that only 37 per cent of Albertans believed that their provincial government was handling COVID-19 well; the lowest, by far, of any province. Then, ThinkHQ reported that 81 per cent of Albertans would support a province-wide mask mandate.
It is unlikely that the measures announced on Nov. 24 will reverse, or even halt, this slide in public support.
How did a skilled politician like Kenney end up in this situation? We offer a few hypotheses.
First, Kenney is almost certainly concerned about an electoral split on the right. Public opinion on appropriate responses to COVID is split along partisan lines, with those further to the right more resistant to mandatory measures.
Common Ground Politics survey research conducted in Alberta in August found that UCP voters were more likely than others to think that the reopening was too slow. A national survey conducted by Vox Pop found that Conservative voters were less likely to wear masks.
WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces new COVID-19 restrictions for Alberta
In his comments on Tuesday, the premier focused a great deal of attention on acknowledging the concerns of those on the right, who argue that restrictions are unconstitutional, for example.
The Alberta separatist (or “Wexit”) movement has gained momentum since the 2019 federal election and Justin Trudeau’s re-election.
With his experience merging conservative parties at both the federal and provincial level, the premier is presumably concerned about vote splitting on the right. By appeasing conservatives, especially in rural Alberta, Kenney is consolidating his base.
With 41 of the 87 seats in the Alberta legislature outside of Edmonton and Calgary, consolidating that base makes electoral sense.
The restrictions that were announced on Tuesday, and the exemptions that were offered, lend support to this hypothesis.
Certainly, the decision to extend mask mandates only in Calgary and Edmonton (where they were already required through municipal bylaws) speaks to a desire to please conservative rural voters.
Similarly, the decision to permit in-person religious services to continue while junior high and high schools had to close speaks to a desire to keep voters in conservative-leaning faith communities onside.
Response informed by ideology
Second, Kenney and many of his close advisors are strong partisans prone to demonizing their political opponents.
Although Alberta has elected conservative governments for decades, we have to go back to the Social Credit governments of the 1950s and 1960s to find a more ideologically conservative government than the current UCP. Although Ralph Klein’s government was driven by fiscal conservatism in its early years, its policies moderated in later years.
The Kenney government’s strong ideological conservatism has informed its pandemic response, particularly since the end of the spring lockdown.
The government’s approach has been to emphasize personal responsibility rather than implementing restrictions.
Citing the economic cost of the lockdown, Kenney has repeatedly minimized the toll of the pandemic while emphasizing the negative consequences of restrictions on the economy broadly, and small business in particular.
This helps to explain why restaurants, bars, casinos, movie theatres and gyms are permitted to remain open, although with some further restrictions.
While other conservative provincial governments — notably Ontario and Manitoba — are placing greater restrictions on retail, Alberta is not.
WATCH | University of Alberta’s Tim Caulfield says the province needs a transparent approach to pandemic policy
Third, having been elected on a mandate of “jobs, economy, pipelines,” the Kenney government remains focused on economic performance.
Its promise of balanced budgets are, of course, no longer feasible, but the government remains deeply concerned about the province’s balance sheet. This helps to explain the decision to push forward on cost savings in the public sector — including health-care — during the pandemic, as well as decisions that prioritize the economy.
These three explanations — electoral considerations, ideology, and a focus on the economy — have resulted in a pandemic response that looks weak when compared to other provinces.
This is a moment that tests political leaders, requiring them to set aside political considerations in favour of the public good. Lives are at stake.
As the death toll continues to rise, the government’s tepid response will come under greater public scrutiny, and the political calculations that have informed it will appear increasingly out of touch.
If the Kenney government is unable to adjust to these new realities, it may pay a steep political price in 2023, as the electorate holds it accountable for both the economic and human cost of the pandemic.
This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.
'The Great Reset', politics and conspiracy – CBC.ca
- 8 hours ago
Last week, after a video of one of his speeches went viral, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to address a growing controversy over “The Great Reset”.
The term means different things to different people. To the World Economic Forum it’s a vague goal to make the world more equal and address climate change in the wake of the pandemic. To Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre it’s evidence of a “power grab” by “global financial elites”.
And to others, it’s part of a baseless and wide-ranging conspiracy theory. CBC senior writer Aaron Wherry has been covering this story in Ottawa. Today he helps us sort the real economics and politics at play… from the conspiracy gaining traction.
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