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COVID-19 ‘revolutionary moment’ in politics will reshape political dynamics



The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has transformed federal politics in profound ways, has reset established views of Canadians on major policy issues like deficits or the role of government in the lives of Canadians, and it will reshape political dynamics in the future, say pundits and MPs.

“Why don’t we use the deficit as an example? The general, established point of view among all the parties is that large deficits are things that are generally to be avoided,” said Nik Nanos, founder and chief data scientist for Nanos Research, in an interview with The Hill Times.

“They are necessary in certain circumstances, but obviously, in the ideal world governments would not run large deficits. And that conventional, traditional wisdom now is being smashed into little bits as Canadians look to the government to help them pay the rent, pay their mortgage, and put food on the table. Canadians will [now] be looking for help from the government; big government will not necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to supporting Canadians and direct financial transfers to them,” said Mr. Nanos.

By deadline on Friday, April 15, there were a total of 72,536 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada, and 5,337 had died of the disease, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Pollster Nik Nanos told The Hill Times that the coronavirus will change the political dynamics and reset established views of Canadians about policy issues, such as the economy and the role of government in people’s lives. The Hill Times file photograph

Since the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) government has been focused singularly on responding to the pandemic as it has affected the lives of all Canadians. All other policy issues, including those the Trudeau Liberals promised to address when they won their second mandate, have gone on the back burner. To help Canadians cope with the economic and health effects of COVID-19, the government has been regularly announcing billions of dollars worth of economic programs. More than seven million Canadians have applied for emergency relief funding from the federal government.

Once the crisis is over, the government is expected to announce measures to help Canadians and businesses as the economy recovers. The Trudeau government has not said so far publicly how much money it is planning on spending in its fight against the coronavirus. But Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux told the House Finance Committee last week that the deficit could go well beyond $252-billion this year, and the national debt could hit $1-trillion.

The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way federal politicians have traditionally interacted with Canadians. The need for social distancing between people to avoid spreading the virus is a key reason for this change. Before the pandemic started, it was a routine for MPs to go door knocking in their constituencies, attend community events and large gatherings, and meet with people face to face in ridings, constituency and Hill offices. Fundraising was also a part and parcel of every MP’s political work. But, since the start of the crisis, all federal politicians have retooled their political operations by ceasing any physical contact with constituents, and conducting almost all of their work virtually. Most of the MPs and their staff are working remotely and are relying heavily on technology to undertake their work.

Much of the parliamentary work including Question Period, committee meetings, and caucus meetings has been conducted online. No one knows yet how long will this go on. It’s anyone’s guess when a vaccine will become available, or whether there will be a second or third wave of COVID-19.

Mr. Nanos said that we’re going to see an even more accelerated use of technology in the coming weeks and months, to the point that in the not-too-distant future politicians’ door-knocking, or in-person fundraising could become a thing of the past.

“We’re probably going to see retail politics take a page out of the book of delivery services, [like] UPS and Amazon: it’s knock and drop,” said Mr. Nanos.

“They don’t wait to say, ‘Hello.’ Basically, what they do is knock on the door, buzz the doorbell, they leave their package or their pamphlet and away they go. So we may see similar types of strategies for campaigns, where there’s no expectation or wish even to interact face to face. But they want to make sure that that prospective voter knows that something has been left on their doorstep for them to pick up that’s important for the election.”

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie says that new MPs are frustrated that they’re working remotely and not able to do their parliamentary duties in Ottawa. The Hill Times file photograph

But Clive Veroni, a Toronto-based author and expert on marketing and brand positioning, predicted that the changes to political work due to the outbreak will be a short-lived phenomenon. He said once the outbreak is over, political activities will gradually and slowly return back to the way that they have been conducted over the past decades.

“In the short term, certainly there’s going to be a change,” said Mr. Veroni. “But eventually we will revert back to our natural human behaviours. We’ve been through pandemics before; we’ve been through plagues of significant death rates. And what happened afterwards, people eventually went back to being human beings. We eventually went back to gathering with each other and shaking each other’s hands and being in large groups together. It’s a natural human instinct to gather, to be close to one another, to be physically close with one another to be interacting. But I don’t know how long that will take, that might take a couple of years.”

Mr. Veroni said that, from a political perspective, the social distancing phenomenon has worked out well for the Liberals. He pointed to Prime Minister Trudeau’s daily press conferences, where he makes funding announcements to help out Canadians dealing with job losses.

“In times of crisis, politics is about taking action that people feel is addressing their most basic needs,” said Mr. Veroni. “And that’s actually more important than being seen, being heard, pressing the flesh, if you will.”

Pollster Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research, said politics is all about human interactions and communicating with the masses and not being able to meet people in-person is posing a key challenge for political parties and politicians, he said.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to MPs to further strengthen their relationship and trust with constituents. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“The ability to sit down with someone and hash out your differences; it’s not the same thing when you do it over Zoom,” said Mr. Lyle.

“That’s a challenge. It’s as much an organizational challenge for parties in the government, as it is a communications challenge, and how they deal with their stakeholders. So a lot of cues that we get in-person get missed when we’re not in-person.”

Seasoned Conservative political strategist Tim Powers, vice-chair of Summa Strategies, said the pandemic has changed the tone of political relationships even amongst archrivals. He cited the examples of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who were both highly critical of the federal government prior to the outbreak, but now have a smooth working relationship in the war against coronavirus.

He said the coordination between both levels of government has showed a “greater spirit of cooperation.”

Mr. Powers said that because of social distancing, politicians have not been able to interact with their constituents, but once things get better, these interactions will get back to normal.

“Politics is a human business,” said Mr. Powers. “So I think it will take a little bit of time, but I don’t see people not wanting to engage with others in the settings where they used to engage [before].”

Mr. Powers said that a key part of the parliamentary experience is the interaction amongst MPs from the same and different caucuses, during official duties and after-hours get-togethers. The new MPs who were first elected last October have not had an adequate amount of time to mingle with their colleagues, he said, because Parliament sat only for about six weeks between October and the suspension of in-person House sittings in mid-March.

“You had a whole new class of MPs that were elected in November, who really have not had that opportunity to live the full parliamentary experience and build the relationships that are so vital as you try and have a career in Ottawa,” said Mr. Powers.

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie (Calgary Midnapore, Alta.), who was first elected in a byelection in 2017 and was re-elected in October, said new MPs are frustrated because they have not been able to have the parliamentary experience that they hoped to get. She said they are frustrated that they’re not able to sit in the House Chamber, attend in-person committee and caucus meetings, or interact with their colleagues in-person.

“They are not having the experience that they thought they would get when they won, and not having the capacities to represent in the ways that they had hoped,” said Ms. Kusie.

“It’s just frustrating: they worked so hard to get elected to do this job. And here they are, you know, tethered in their homes essentially, to do this. Being in the Chamber is such an honour, it really is, and having the opportunity to have access to just the most fascinating people in every field,” Ms. Kusie said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been announcing billions of dollars in new programs to help Canadians cope with the negative economic and health impacts of COVID-19. The Parliamentary Budget Officer said last week that the national debt could hit $1-trillion this fiscal year. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Ms. Kusie also said that these days she’s relying mostly on social media and the phone to reach out to her constituents.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says the pandemic has shown Canadians how important the government’s role is in their everyday lives and he says all politicians should figure out how to work together in the post-COVID-19 era for the sake of the country. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Six-term NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.) told The Hill Times that he’s focusing only on helping and reassuring his constituents in these uncertain times. He said this is an opportunity for MPs to further strengthen their relationship with constituents by providing them with what they need in their everyday lives.

“COVID presents challenges, but it also presents opportunities,” said Mr. Angus, who was first elected in 2004. “COVID is an opportunity to remind people their local MP is the person that’s there for them and is able to open doors to the government to talk to ministers to try and find solutions.”

Mr. Angus also said that this crisis has proven to Canadians how important the government’s role is in their everyday lives. The key question, he said, that all politicians must pay attention to going forward is how they can all work together to further improve Canada in the post-COVID-19 era.

“COVID has made very, very clear that the government has enormous capacity, enormous power to influence lives for the better and people are looking to government right now,” said Mr. Angus. “This has been a revolutionary moment. …The question that we really need to grapple with is, what will the new Canada look like after COVID, and what would be the role of politicians to help us get there to where we need to be?”

Eight-term Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who represents Malpeque, P.E.I., told The Hill Times he has never had as much interaction with his constituents as he has in the last two months. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Eight-term Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.) told The Hill Times he has never had as much interaction with his constituents as he has in the last two months. He said he prefers to meet people in-person, but because of the social distancing requirements, is talking to his constituents over the phone. Mr. Easter also said he cannot remember any time in the past when the government consulted all MPs as much as they have since the pandemic hit Canada.

“I don’t think you’ve ever seen as much input into policy-making from Members of all parties as you’ve seen in the last two months,” said Mr. Easter.

The Hill Times 

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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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Keep Politics Out of Reopening Houses of Worship – The New York Times



Credit…Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

To the Editor:

Re “Firing Salvo in Culture Wars, Trump Wants Churches Open” (front page, May 23):

Last Friday was not the first time we have witnessed a politician attempting to ingratiate himself with faith communities. Through the years, leaders from both major political parties have sought the support of houses of worship in their electoral campaigns.

Certainly those of us who devote our lives to religious leadership would like to consider our work “essential.” And we eagerly await the day when we can welcome our congregants back to their spiritual homes. While we can pray to God anywhere at any time alone or with others, and while the internet has provided a viable and meaningful vehicle for gathering our members in this time of physical distancing, nothing could ever replace the power of in-person congregational worship.

But religious communities must not become political pawns for a president seeking to placate his evangelical base. In Judaism, the saving of life supersedes all other religious responsibilities. The decision whether or not to reopen houses of worship belongs in the hands of local authorities alone, guided by health concerns, not political ones.

Joshua M. Davidson
New York
The writer is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.

To the Editor:

The cynicism of President Trump’s call to governors to open the churches is staggering. I am a Catholic who attends Mass every day. I have always loved the ritual of the Mass, and I rejoice and celebrate as I gather with friends old and new who enrich my life. I will return joyfully to my church when our governor deems it safe to do so, not when it is politically expedient for our president.

John T. Dillon
West Caldwell, N.J.

To the Editor:

President Trump asks all governors to immediately open up churches and allow in-person worship — without testing. Yet everyone who meets with Mr. Trump must first be tested.

So, what’s good for the gander ain’t good for the goose. If he truly believes that in-person worship is safe, let’s see him go to these churches (or restaurants or theaters) without testing — and let’s see him mingle with the folks not wearing masks.

Marc R. Stanley

Credit…From left: Zack DeZon for The New York Times; Andrew Seng for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “The Star of the City Sells Itself,” by Michael Kimmelman (Critic’s Notebook, Arts pages, May 7):

OK, the Brooklyn Bridge is wholly in New York City and joins two of its boroughs. And it was something of an engineering achievement. Book after book has been written about it; it appears in a wealth of movies.

But the great bridge in the New York area is the George Washington.

When I sought to read a book on the George, I discovered that there were none. Participating in a symposium at Columbia University on American icons, and listening to others drone on about the Brooklyn, I asked “What about the George?” There was complete silence. Then one participant said, to almost universal laughter, “But look where it goes,” the suggestion being that since the George crosses to New Jersey, it couldn’t possibly be important.

The George is also the gateway to Interstate 80, on which one may travel in a straight line to San Francisco. New Yorkers think of themselves as sophisticated compared with New Jerseyans, but they can often be decidedly parochial.

Michael Aaron Rockland
Morristown, N.J.
The writer is the author of “The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel” and a professor of American studies at Rutgers.

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