It was not a great week for politics. The Team Canada concept — which maintained a concerted COVID-19 strategy last spring — has now evolved into Blame Canada, as opposition politicians take aim at the federal government for the lack of a vaccine delivery date. Simultaneously, Erin O’Toole, who is so anxious for the date, did not disavow a caucus member’s e-petition which questions the safety of future vaccines.
Even worse, provincial politicians took shots at each other. Christine Elliott, Ontario’s minister of health, said it is Alberta rather than Ontario that is in crisis, because “they are doubling up patients in intensive care units.”
This sniping really has to stop. Now is not the time to come apart, but to come together. A laserlike resolve is needed for the perilous winter months.
Elected officials are not exempt from feeling pandemic fatigue themselves. They too have families, and their jobs have also evolved. Most politicians use human interaction as their political oxygen. But large crowds with cheering supporters are taboo. Politicians who are generally surrounded by a team, whether it is their own caucus or staff, now stand alone, as the prime minister does in front of Rideau Cottage when he answers media questions.
If leaders are accompanied by colleagues, they are separated from each other. Doug Ford, for example, looks like he is auditioning for a role in the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.” He appears to be standing on a chess board, while his ministers move in and out of invisible squares as they respond to journalists.
Yielding the stage to expert public health officials has also become a new norm. Health officials are non-political, therefore their trust level with the public is generally high, but as time has passed, their recommendations have not always been followed.
Elected people want to deliver good news — not grim news. They know that business owners do not want to hear of hot zones or red zones or lockdowns. They know that ageism, discrimination, poor safety measures, shoddy infrastructure and low wages have all contributed to deaths of many loved ones in long-term care homes. And they all know that mental health issues are mounting along with COVID infection rates. The future is tough.
As COVID-19 wound its ugly path throughout the country, politicians faced choices. The majority adhered to medical counselling, exhorting people to socially distance, wear masks, halt gatherings and religiously wash hands.
Others, like Jason Kenney, chose to believe that personal responsibility would be enough to thwart the scourge. In spite of the rising COVID cases in Alberta and his own plummeting poll numbers, Kenney still refuses to order mandatory masking, even as reports state that field hospitals are being planned for contingency purposes.
So, where do politicians go from here? Given the changing information about COVID, any government could be forgiven for a certain amount of incoherent communication over the past few months.
However, as winter approaches, mistakes on vaccine timing, distribution and logistics must be kept to an absolute minimum. Governments will depend on the military for the crucial task of safely and securely delivering the vaccines. 2021 will require precise execution supported by clear messaging about the process, which must be accessible in different languages and to all cultural groups.
It is not only logistics that will prove daunting. Ethical challenges will preoccupy us, as prioritization of vaccines must be triaged. What if one province has too much or one has not enough? How do we handle those who refuse to take the vaccine? How will governments and social media giants manage deliberate misinformation?
Next week as premiers and territorial leaders gather to discuss long-term health funding, they must put aside their differences to demonstrate that the eradication of COVID is their number one priority.
Even with the bright rays of hope from successful vaccine trials, we still have months to go and years to recover. Managing tough information is the new norm of political leadership. It will require a steely resolve and firm decision making.
Politics is no longer about delivering good times. It’s now about inspiring us to get through bad times.
U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang
The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.
“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.
Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.
“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.
In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”
While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.
“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”
The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.
British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”
She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.
“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.
Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.
“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”
(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)
Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings
Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.
In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
The charity later walked away from the contract.
Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.
Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.
Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.
No fines or penalties were levied.
Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.
Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.
In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.
In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”
The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.
($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)
EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June
The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.
Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.
Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.
The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.
Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.
Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.
EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.
“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.
The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.
Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.
“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.
More details were not immediately available.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)
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