As America cries for leadership, Donald Trump accelerates its division

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 21, 2020.

Ever since that poignant morning in 2016 when Hillary Clinton took the stage in bipartisan, conciliatory purple to concede defeat to Donald Trump, I have used this space to urge people to remain calm. To remind them that America is a mature and stable democracy that will cope just fine with the tumult of a Trump presidency.

I have written that the markets will continue to function, congress will do its job, the courts will defend the Constitution and the military will refute any unlawful order.

Far from a Trump apologist, I was anchored in a belief that the breadth of modern America’s institutions — legal, civil and economic — can be depended upon to not only withstand but to keep in check the most dangerous impulses of any character who ascends to the Oval Office.

It is now clear I was mistaken.

Like a lot people I think, I allowed the good times or at least “normal” times of the day colour my lenses in imagining the impact a disastrous president could have. I never considered what would happen in bad times and how devastatingly wrong that analysis would turn out to be.

Now five months into a pandemic that has brought with it uncontemplated social and economic disruption, I no longer have to hypothesize about the theoretical impact of an unhinged presidency.

When I see Americans pitted against each other in an overdue demand for justice for African Americans, I no longer have to hypothesize about what happens when a leader governs for some of the people and not all of the people.

I can simply watch the catastrophic results play out in front of my eyes every night on Fox or CNN.

To be sure, three years of President Trump has been a revolving door of disaster. The juvenile insults, assaults on civil rights, violent outbursts and episodes of corruption have flowed from one to the next.

But now that the “good times” or the “normal times” are well and truly over and our world has been jolted from normalcy, we can clearly see the price America is paying for his nonsense.

At a time when America is being rocked to its very core; when Americans are yearning, no crying out, for a steady hand, for a North Star, for hope, there is none to be found on Pennsylvania Ave.

Clearly, Americans have endured bad presidents before. Just as we in Canada have had bad prime ministers. But it is hard to remember a time when a leader has so emphatically disengaged with their role as a leader in a time of crisis. It is even harder to imagine another White House responding to nationwide hurt and anguish with such a leering sense of menace.

When it comes it its government, America has much of which to be proud. In modern times it survived, for example, the disgrace of Watergate. By its example, it has contributed to democracy around the world. It has made its own way in that world and created a presidency that fulfils the role of not only the head of government but also the head of state. A leader comparable to the political role of a prime minister who is also endowed with the monarch-like responsibility to model a nation’s leadership and help absorb its pain.

Within that construct, there are some things that others can do, some that only the president can do.

For example, the president is often referred to as the comforter-in-chief. It is a role that Presidents Regan, Clinton and Obama fulfilled with great effect. But the truth is, it is a responsibility that can be delegated to another leader. The vice president or a religious leader for example.

But what can’t be delegated is the role the president plays when the nation needs to come together. When differences need to be set aside and common ground found. In those times, there is no substitute for the president.

The problem American faces today is Trump, by his own actions and his own hand, has forfeited that role.

By the Constitution, he retains his legal authority to govern. But by pitting one American against another, he has lost his moral authority to lead.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

What’s Old is New Again: An Analysis of the Conservative French Debate

After much upheaval and rescheduling, the Conservative leadership candidates finally came together for the first debate of the campaign. A debate in French is a tall order for the all-anglophone panel of candidates while ability to speak in French is becoming more important to a majority of Canadians. All candidates did their best to come across as coherent and Prime Ministerial in their remarks, but who succeeded?

In terms of French ability, Peter MacKay took the title of most fluent. He was articulate, able to speak on the fly, and looked like a Prime Minister. Erin O’Toole gets second-place for his decent pronunciation, conversational tone, and his ability to speak in real-time with Peter MacKay. However, he could not keep up when it came to a live debate, with MacKay taking up most of the airtime. Derek Sloan surprised all with his stronger-than-expected French ability, however he resorted to asking questions of the frontrunners during debate portions, rather than, well, debating. Finally, Leslyn Lewis did well for someone who only began her French lessons this year, but she was nowhere near Prime Ministerial. Her eyes stayed on her notes, and she was not able to read a prepared statement, let alone debate in real time.

On issues, there was no lack of traditional Conservative fare, but many of the themes discussed might not have been out of place at a Liberal debate. O’Toole and MacKay gave traditional Conservative answers to questions on national defence, the importance of the oil and gas sector to Canada’s economy, plans for the economic reopening post-COVID-19, and the concept of building an energy corridor across Canada. MacKay dominated on the socially progressive themes of the night, such as abortion, immigration levels, and support for LGBTQ issues, delivering a powerful speech in support of including Conservatives of all genders and sexualities in the party. O’Toole, meanwhile, was unclear on his views on social conservatism, and was hit hard by MacKay on his inability to pick a side. Sloan and Lewis were both clearly on the side of social conservatives, with Sloan decrying cancel culture and political correctness.

Ultimately, the debate was a contest between O’Toole and MacKay. MacKay attempted to speak for as long as possible in the free debate rounds, to crowd out the weaker French-speakers on the stage. O’Toole tried to fend off this strategy but came off as whiny and unduly upset by routine political attacks. Often, he tried to get a one-liner in over MacKay’s monologues but was unsuccessful. Both men wound up speaking over each other continuously, even accusing each other of dividing the party. MacKay managed to get in the best one-liners, at one point calling his rival Erin Trudeau. MacKay focused on linking himself to the great Tories of old, like Brian Mulroney and John Diefenbaker, while O’Toole worked to paint himself as the leader of the future. This dynamic will likely play out further in the upcoming English debate.

So how did everyone do? Peter MacKay demonstrated the pedigree, experience, and composure necessary to convince Canadians that he could one day be Prime Minister. O’Toole fell short of producing a complete picture of his views, and his attempts to look like a man of the future will not sell against a younger, more progressive Prime Minister. Derek Sloan was able to communicate his ideas, albeit not articulately, and made it clear that he supports social conservative viewpoints. Oh, and Leslyn Lewis was there too.

Alors que ce passage obligé de la course à la chefferie a dû être repoussé en raison de la pandémie, les candidats à la tête du Parti Conservateur ont enfin pu se prêter à l’exercice, en commençant hier soir par le débat en français. Cela représentait toutefois un défi de taille pour les candidats, qui sont tous anglophones. Qui a réussi à se démarquer comme potentiel premier ministre aux yeux des électeurs francophones?

Selon les experts linguistiques, Erin O’Toole et Peter MacKay sont les candidats qui maîtrisent le mieux le français, même si on reste encore loin d’un niveau acceptable pour les électeurs francophones. Erin O’Toole, malgré un fort accent, adoptait un discours généralement fluide et compréhensible sans être entièrement dépendant de ses notes pour répondre aux questions. Il peinait toutefois par moment à garder la cadence contre McKay, qui s’est démarqué pour son charisme et ses habiletés de débatteur. Derek Sloan, de son côté, s’est montré tout simplement incapable de débattre avec ses homologues. Sa vision peu commune de la question linguistique, qui propose que le Québec ne fournisse que des services en français et que l’Alberta ne fournisse que des services en anglais, risque également de faire sourciller les minorités linguistiques partout au pays. Leslyn Lewis, malheureusement, a été tout simplement incapable de lever les yeux de son texte, et a dû se résoudre à s’effacer peu à peu du débat.

L’éventail habituel des enjeux conservateurs traditionnels ont évidemment été abordés lors du débat. O’Toole et MacKay ont donné des réponses attendues aux questions portant sur la défense, sur l’importance du secteur pétrolier, sur leurs plans de relance économique post-pandémie ainsi que sur la construction d’un couloir énergétique traversant le pays. McKay a toutefois marqué d’importants points en abordant des enjeux plus progressistes, comme son appui à la communauté LGBTQ+ et son intention de faire preuve de plus d’inclusion au sein même du parti, ainsi que sa position « pro-choix » sur l’avortement. O’Toole, au contraire, est resté très vague sur les questions de valeur, s’exposant à de vives critiques de la part de MacKay quant à son incapacité à prendre position. Sloan et Lewis, sans grande surprise, se sont déclarés clairement en faveur du conservatisme social. Sloan s’est notamment opposé à l’Accord et Paris et à la Déclaration des Nations unies sur les droits des peuples autochtones.

Le débat s’est donc avéré être une compétition entre les deux meneurs, O’Toole et MacKay. Ce dernier a notamment tenté de monopoliser le temps de discussion au profit des candidats ne maîtrisant pas la langue de débat. O’Toole, qui s’est plaint de cette tactique à de multiples reprises, a souvent peiné à interrompre les longs monologues de MacKay, se fâchant même à quelques reprises. Les deux hommes ont passé la majeure partie du débat à se couper la parole et à s’accuser l’un et l’autre de diviser le parti. Comparant son rival au premier ministre actuel en l’appelant « Erin Trudeau », MacKay a tenté de se positionner dans la même lignée que les grands leaders Tories du passé, dont Brian Mulroney et John Diefenbaker. O’Toole, de son côté, a tenté se présenter plutôt comme « l’homme du futur », une dynamique qui risque fort bien de se reproduire lors du débat en anglais.

Quel est donc le verdict? Peter MacKay semble avoir réussi à démontrer l’expérience, les compétences et le charisme nécessaires pour convaincre les électeurs francophones qu’il pourrait être premier ministre du Canada. O’Toole, de son côté, n’a pas réussi à offrir une perspective d’ensemble de ses politiques et de ses positions personnelles sur les enjeux sociaux. Son positionnement comme « conservateur du futur » risque également de se montrer insuffisant face à un jeune premier ministre progressiste comme Justin Trudeau. Du point de vue du Québec et des communautés francophones ailleurs au pays, la performance des deux autres candidats est carrément insuffisante pour un parti politique d’envergure nationale. Sloan, bien qu’il se soit montré plus clair sur ses couleurs politiques, a pâli en comparaison aux deux premiers. Lewis, elle, s’est malheureusement contentée de faire acte de présence.

We are done with COVID-19 but it is not done with us

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 13, 2020.

Though it now seems easy to forget, we remain locked in a battle with the novel coronavirus. It has been 93 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic; a declaration that brought with it unprecedented restrictions on our liberties and to our livelihoods.

That we all willingly obeyed those orders is a notion fundamental to a democratic society: the consent of the citizen to submit to the authority of the government.

But the mass protests of past weeks have shown a fraying of this social contract, Prompted by an angry outcry to a long simmering wrong, the Black Lives Matter movement has caught on where the anti-lockdown movement has fizzled out.

The BLM protests are, as I wrote here last week, justified and long overdue and the anti-quarantine movement was never more than a radical fringe. But the outcome and the dangers, vis-à-vis the coronavirus, are much the same.

While it is dangerous to confuse the real medical risk of these protests with their ideological or political value, we have seen public health authorities trip over themselves to somehow sanction them. They seem suddenly desperate to inoculate themselves against the criticism that it remains irresponsible to gather in large groups, even outdoors, even in a mask.

It was just a month ago that irresponsibility was the charge levelled against those who protested the COVID-19 lockdowns. It was only two weeks ago that health and political authorities alike were condemning youth in Trinity Bellwoods park, going so far as to label them reckless and selfish.

But governments have now run into a brick wall when it comes to public compliance. Terrified of losing their moral authority to govern, their power of moral suasion, the tail is, once again, wagging the dog with public health authorities repeatedly contorting themselves or playing catch-up to shifts of opinion and behaviour among the public.

As the social contract frays, the more pronounced this phenomenon becomes, and the more the authority of government will erode.

Public health authorities can issue endless reminders about best practices but now that every leader from the prime minister on down has participated in a mass gathering, the government’s dissuasive power against gathering in large groups has melted like a popsicle in the summer sun.

This fraying will only get worse, I predict. Whether it is because of the warm weather, general quarantine fatigue after three long months, deteriorating mental or financial health, people are simply ceasing to do what the government asks.

And why should they? It is not as if our leaders have modelled good behaviour. If others are not willing to follow the basic rules of the social contract, it is rather easy to understand those who choose to abandon quarantine to join a growing popular protest movement. After all, condemning untold instances of appalling police brutality seems to many a reasonable and necessary thing to do.

Public health authorities like Dr. Anthony Fauci are, of course, of a different view. Fauci sternly warned this week that the protests are the “perfect setup” for spreading the virus. The challenge for governments is that it will take a couple of weeks to see if he is right. And while we wait, it will be difficult for authorities to convince the public that the risk is real when Toronto public health authorities recently quietly confirmed that we saw no such spike after the gathering in Bellwoods.

And so, it is becoming clear that we have collectively decided that, regardless of what we are told, we are done with COVID-19.

But the virus is not done with us — far from it.

And therein lies the challenge facing those who lead our democracy.

What happens when the people decide they have had enough? What happens when the people decide that they will no longer blindly, unquestioningly accept your instructions? What happens when science and instinct and experience leads you in one direction and the people lead you in another?

Those are questions that will preoccupy our leaders through the doldrums of summer. And their answers will live on much longer in the health of our nation and the political fortunes of their parties.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Protest is a powerful force for progress

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 6, 2020.

In January 1909, a group of notable Americans signed their names to a statement that called for a national conference focused on the civil and political rights of Black Americans. The “Call” was signed by the likes of W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells, and it contended that the upcoming centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth should be a day of “taking stock of the nation’s progress since 1865.”

“How far has [the nation] lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?” asked the letter.

The unfortunate answer, affirmed over a century later by the voices of thousands of Americans this past week, is clear: nowhere near far enough.

Many signatories of the “Call” would go on to form the NAACP, officially established just a few weeks later. In its 111-year history, the NAACP evolved from a relatively small association focused on litigation against Jim Crow laws, into a national organization with half a million members and tangible political power.

Like many civil rights organizations, it was born from emotion, specifically anger, frustration and disappointment in the deferred promise of 1865 (the passage of the 13th amendment). But over the years, civil rights leaders like Dubois and Wells channelled that emotion into positive action, without which the United States would be less free, less equal and less just a society than it is today.

As protests spread this week across the United States and here at home — protests that have jolted so many of us out of our privileged complacency — it’s important to remember the legacy of civil rights organizations and their roots in protest.

The simple fact is that direct action works: from the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to the Stonewall riots and the origins of Pride, protest and civil unrest has long served as a catalyst for important change. The protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police are no different.

Consider just how much the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved since its inception in 2013. What began as a hashtag has grown into an international phenomenon, the animating spirit of the largest protests seen in nearly 50 years. While its actions were once the subject of controversy, corporations and brands now eagerly endorse their message.

Along the way, Black Lives Matter has remained steadfastly committed to its roots as a protest movement. Local chapters of the movement have now, for seven years, led protests in response to far too many deaths, all too similar to George Floyd’s. With each action, the loose network envisioned by the movement’s founders has grown stronger.

The natural question to ask next is what happens to the Black Lives Matter movement from here? Perhaps the movement will go the way of Pride: corporatized and mainstream, far now from its roots in protest. Like Pride, victory here may not ultimately mean a set of policy changes, so much as a shifting of the Overton window — a victory of the public sense of what’s possible and expected.

But regardless of where the movement ultimately goes, this is coming to a head. We are experiencing a once-in-a-generation paroxysm about the health and safety of Black communities, prompted by both the coronavirus and the latest instances of police brutality.

It is not my place to say what the demands of the protestors should be or what shape the movement should take next, but I feel it would be a tragedy to move away from the basis of the movement in protest.

After all, we have seen, again and again, how the courage and leadership of organizers and protestors alike have sustained the movement through years of growth.

That said, any meaningful, sustainable change that comes next will depend on all of us — how our expectations, our behaviour and our attitudes evolve. And that means, first and foremost, looking inward and addressing, in the words of James Baldwin, the “many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Dominic Barton is Canada’s bright light in the crisis with China

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

When it comes to China, the Trudeau government has acted with the deference a pageboy would show a queen. As they have muddled through a long series of skirmishes, from the arbitrary and unjust kidnapping of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to the trade disputes over canola, soybeans and meat, the objections of the federal government have been muted and overly diplomatic.

For a time, it seemed the COVID-19 pandemic would be no different. The well-substantiated suggestion that China had been less than forthcoming in its disclosures about the virus was dismissed by the federal health minister as a “conspiracy theory.” The minister of foreign affairs twisted himself into a pretzel to avoid even saying the word “Taiwan.” We refused to close our border to flights originating from China. And this week, as Beijing snuffed out the last remnants of the One Country, Two Systems agreement that protected civil liberties in Hong Kong, the most Trudeau could muster was a call for “constructive” dialogue.

But, thankfully, a bright light has appeared on the horizon: plucked from the private sector and appointed Canadian ambassador to China last September, Dominic Barton has gone further than any other Canadian official in criticizing Beijing.

Last week, Barton was in the news for his comments to the Canadian International Council during which he suggested Beijing had accrued “negative soft power” through its belligerent international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and endorsed a “rigorous review” of the WHO’s response.

By the standard of the Trudeau government, this amounted to surprisingly pointed criticism. More surprising still was the prime minister’s endorsement of this criticism the day after it was reported publicly.

Some had early concerns with Barton, who was appointed to the ambassadorship fresh off his stint as the managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey.

But Barton was a savvy choice. An experienced China hand, and a principled realist, he now uses the qualities that enabled him to succeed brilliantly in business to drive his candid commentary about China.

It is helpful that his concerns are real. In bungling its so-called Mask Diplomacy, China has, indeed, eroded its soft power and further alienated foreign governments. The Netherlands was forced to recall 600,000 faulty masks bought from China; in Spain, 50,000 test kits were tossed out after it was discovered they were only accurate about one-in-three times. The Slovenians bought 1.2 million antibody tests for $16 million dollars, only to discover they were similarly useless. The Czechs have had complaints, and so have the Turks. And, of course, Canada too. The list goes on.

Through it all, the Chinese government has pushed aggressively, in a Trump-like way, for the leaders of these European nations to offer public displays of gratitude. But the gambit has backfired. Instead of gratitude, the EU’s chief diplomat has warned that this so-called “politics of generosity” disguises a “geopolitical struggle for influence through spinning.”

And so it is these two ambassadors who, in positions not known for straight talk, have emerged as the sanest, clearest moral voice when it comes to China.

Of course, there will always be a David-and-Goliath dynamic that constrains what Canadians can say and do when it comes to dealing with a superpower such as China. The reality is Ottawa cannot simultaneously be at odds with both Beijing and Washington, especially while the latter has its mercurial commander-in-chief.

Nevertheless, I predict we can count on Barton to continue to speak truth to power, at least so much as his position — and Canada’s position — allows.

And speak truth to power not just to the Chinese but to the Canadian government as well. After all, he has the tools to do so: credibility and respect within Trudeau’s Ottawa and within Xi’s Beijing.

But doing so just got more complicated. On Wednesday, a B.C. judge decided the case against Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive and daughter of the company’s founder, should proceed.

Though the courts have yet to rule on her extradition to the U.S., the ultimate decision maker in this process is the minister of justice, who must determine whether the extradition could generate an outcome that runs “contrary to Canadian values.”

Contrary to Canadian values when it comes to China? Watch for Barton’s influence as the Trudeau government works to sort that question.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Insight: Digital Democracy in the Age of Pandemic

Ensight’s Tyler Downey’s analysis of the recent report by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee and what it means for democracy

Soon, Canada’s Parliament will boldly go where no Parliament has gone before – online. For weeks, experts on Parliamentary procedure and digital communications have been working with the House of Commons administration to determine what changes need to be made to the House’s Standing Orders to ensure that Parliamentary business can continue virtually. Both the Speaker of the House Anthony Rota, as head of the House administration, and the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) have issued reports on the readiness of the Commons administration to move either partially or fully online.

The scope of the logistics of the move are overwhelming, and both PROC and the Speaker have spoken about the technical issues that may arise. The report drafted by PROC recommends a temporary hybrid Parliament, with some members attending in-person and others virtually, before moving to a fully virtual platform. MPs and witnesses who spoke during committee proceedings were concerned about preserving the parliamentary privileges MPs enjoy while sitting in the House, the translation of proceedings into both official languages, the feasibility of electronic methods for special points of order in session, the availability of broadband internet and equipment for MPs in rural and remote areas, and, of course, digital security to keep the whole system safe. The Speaker, for his part, has said the House is now prepared to begin virtual sittings, but highlighted some ongoing concerns he has, including how to determine an MP’s presence for the purpose of quorum, and the need for electronic systems for moving motions and tabling documents. Both PROC and the Speaker have shown deep concern for the security of voting electronically, highlighting the importance of digital security to preserve the legitimacy of Parliamentary votes.

Now that the Speaker has declared virtual Parliament ready, it is unclear if there will need to be a stop along the way into a hybrid Parliament model. Parliamentary parties have been locked in negotiations since last week to determine the way forward for Parliament. Both the NDP and Conservative leaders have indicated that a hybrid model may be their preferred choice, and the Prime Minister has indicated he is willing to consider it, although his preference is to extend the current thrice weekly sittings of the COVI committee to four per week. There seems to be little talk about moving to a fully virtual Parliament, despite the recommendation from committee that a hybrid Parliament is no substitute for real democracy with all members participating equally and must be replaced with fully virtual sittings as soon as possible.

All told, this move to virtual proceedings could have significant impacts on Canadian democracy in the future. Drafting a separate set of Standing Orders that can be put into practice by Parliamentary vote opens the door to possible permanent changes to Parliament, if MPs decide sitting virtually, hybrid or fully, from time to time is beneficial. Allowing MPs to vote electronically, securely, and by distance could be the greatest change to the way Parliament functions and could result in MPs taking extended time in their constituencies and voting by distance on crucial votes. If MPs can vote, debate, and otherwise fully participate in Parliament from the comfort of their homes, their lack of presence in Ottawa could change the way political professionals do business, whether they’re lobbyists, political staffers, communications professionals, or constituency staff. Whether these changes will be for the best, or the worst, and what they will look like, only time will tell.

The ‘she-cession’ may be new but its underlying causes are not

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 24, 2020.

Of all the inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is none more glaring than the profoundly unequal effect it has had on the lives of women.

The impacts are felt everywhere. Primary caregivers have been forced to balance their professional and personal lives like never before, as children stay home from school and work comes home. The psychological and financial pressures of the pandemic have exacerbated the conditions for domestic violence, which impacts Canadian women at a disproportionate rate. Most workers in Canadian long-term care facilities — a group uniquely vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 — are women.

But the fact is, these issues did not arrive with COVID-19 nor will they disappear with a vaccine.

First, the role of women at home. As we look ahead to the reopening of our economy, the wildly unequal division of labour in most households, along with the expected phased nature of reopening, will pose additional challenges for women seeking to return to work.

While some daycares in Ontario have reopened, schools and camps will be closed until the fall. How can we expect parents to return to work without any feasible options for child care?

Second, in public health terms, women face a crisis with unequal repercussions. Over 50 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are women, making us an exception among nations where the prevailing trend is one of majority-male cases. The apparent reasons are that Canadian women live longer than men and many high-risk jobs (like long-term care work) are done by women. But the trend is disturbing nonetheless.

And third, there is the troublingly unequal economic impact for women. Unlike previous recessions that have mostly impacted goods-producing sectors, COVID-19’s devastation has been largely focused on the service economy.

In the 2008/2009 recession, widespread hits to manufacturing and construction meant that a male workforce bore the brunt of the downturn. But, this time out, rather than job sites and warehouses, it is hospitality and retail that are hurting most. As a result, the majority of jobs lost due to COVID-19, in both Canada and the United States, have been held by women. From mid-February to mid-March, nearly 62 per cent of Canadian job losses were experienced by women.

But those numbers hide an even more significant challenge. Many of those women were let go earlier than their male counterparts and their return to the workplace will be a more significant uphill battle.

It’s now clear that what we face in 2020 is not simply a recession but a “she-cession”; one that will impact the economic life of women in a very unequal way.

So what does this mean? It means our governments need to ditch the playbook they used in 2008/2009 and create one that responds to the needs of this particular crisis.

And they have begun to do just that. So far, Trudeau and his cabinet have shown a promising commitment to addressing some of the issues facing women across Canada: $50 million has been provided for services that support women, children and victims of assault and last week; Minister Mary Ng announced a $15 million investment to help female business owners through the pandemic. The augmented Canada Child Benefit announced by the prime minister this week is another step in the right direction.

But compare this to more than $280-billion in overall COVID-19 relief and the case is made that much, much more is needed.

And there are other considerations. Rather than simply focusing on social supports and targeted pandemic spending, the Trudeau government must take a holistic approach that considers the role of women in our wider economic recovery. That means proper tools to track and analyze the unique impact of this crisis along gender lines as well as innovative options for bolstering our service economy to ensure that unemployment trends no longer impact female earners so profoundly. It also means a genuine commitment to tackle the gender inequalities that predate COVID-19 but have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Getting this right — resolving our systematic challenges as well as our temporal ones — will allow us to come out of this crisis as a stronger, more caring and more successful country.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Canada’s official residences deserve our care and respect

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 17, 2020.

This week, a furor arose on a topic that feels remote to most Canadians, even more so amid the upheaval of COVID-19: the prime minister’s cottage.

In the context of unprecedented layoffs, a health-care crisis and a looming recession, there are many who find such a conversation tone-deaf. But they miss the point — Harrington Lake and the other official residences do not belong to any politician, rather they are symbols (or should be) that belong to all Canadians.

Though most of us would be hard-pressed to name them, the National Capital Commission maintains six historic official properties. In addition to the iconic Rideau Hall and the famously decrepit 24 Sussex Drive, there is the Opposition leader’s home, Stornoway, the House of Commons Speaker’s Gatineau getaway, “The Farm,” a place for visiting dignitaries to crash, 7 Rideau Gate, and — subject of the latest furor — Harrington Lake.

As sure as the swallows are to return to Capistrano each year, on cue, opposition parties shame the sitting prime minister for spending even a red cent on upkeep of these official residences. And it matters not who is paying the bill. Trudeau Sr. was attacked for allowing supporters to build a swimming pool at 24 Sussex — critics called it a bribe from shadowy donors. When Brian Mulroney dared to spend $308,000 on renovations — much of it funded by the PC Party of Canada — he was accused of “Imelda Marcos-like” extravagance.

Now it is Justin Trudeau’s turn. Since mid-April, Conservatives have been using Google Earth photos to speculate that the prime minister has been secretly building himself a “lakeside mansion” at Harrington Lake. Not so, says the National Capital Commission: they are proceeding with a planned $6.1 million restoration of the main cottage. The prime minster is simply using a newly or — depending on who you ask — ostentatiously rebuilt “farmhouse” in the interim; one that will revert to use by official guests once renovations are done.

As the Liberals have faltered in disclosing information about this latest renovation and the NCC has been forced to play cleanup, the country’s chattering classes or “notables” as they like to call themselves in Ottawa, plunge once again into a familiar pond of rancour; fear of which has dissuaded government after government from keeping these residences in livable condition. And talk about pound-foolish and penny wise. With each delay, the eventual cost increases as the buildings sink further into disrepair.

As a result, the historic properties intended to house our country’s elected leadership are in a sorry state. At 24 Sussex, the wiring is a fire hazard, the boiler is broken, the plumbing jams often, the brickwork is crumbling; the entire place is cooled during the summer months by security-compromising window-mounted air conditioner units. The dining room is too big for a family, but too small for a state function. Asbestos is everywhere, as are rodents. And not the hamsters favoured by the Harper children.

That Canada has allowed these properties to degrade into squalor is a national shame. Across the world, there is a distinguished tradition of official residences for heads of government. Just as 10 Downing Street does for the British or the White House does for the Americans, 24 Sussex should serve as a metonym for our elected government itself.

Yet the disrepair is so bad, the current PM has chosen to abandon it and decamp across the road to Rideau Cottage, which his daily coronavirus updates have made famous.

It’s clear no leader has the political guts to make the obvious case that any renovation would not be in his (or her) personal interest; indeed, the necessary fixes would take longer than any prime minister’s term to complete.

So, it is also clear we need a different approach. We need to take this whole business out of the hands of the politicians and entrust these properties to an independent commission of experts.

Just as we have relied on health care professionals to help guide us through this pandemic, we should rely on architectural experts to help determine the future of these important buildings.

After all, these residences, emblems as they are of our system of government, deserve better. They deserve our care and our respect.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Leaders enjoy a bounce in the polls during a crisis but beware, it’s not a summit

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 10, 2020.

Fingers crossed, as the peak of the pandemic fades into Ontario’s rear-view, Queen’s Park has begun to turn its attention to the perhaps even more challenging task of reopening the economy. The province, along with governments the world over, has laid out a framework to guide the crucial next phases of recovery and taken the first cautious steps on the way.

For most leaders, this pivot comes at a time of personal political strength. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia has earned a 25 per cent bounce in his approval rating; U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is up 18 points; Angela Merkel up by 14. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gained somewhere between seven and 16 per cent, depending on the poll.

Provincial leaders have also fared very well. While Quebec Premier François Legault now enjoys near-Stalinist levels of popular support at 96 per cent, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is not far behind at 83 per cent.

For Premier Ford, there are, I think, two factors at play: the first is that politics is a game of expectations, and he is exceeding old expectations of both his capability and his performance like a golden buzzer contestant on “America’s Got Talent.” Countless times I have heard committed opponents of Ford acknowledge that he is delivering an authentic and highly competent response to this crisis.

The second is that in every crisis, regardless of the quality of the response, leaders benefit from an effect that political scientists call “rallying around the flag,” which occurs during a crisis when voters are reluctant to criticize their government and instead give them the benefit of the doubt.

The common error leaders benefitting from this effect make is to mistake the temporary sugar high of support during the event for enduring support after the event. It’s a mistake because the evidence suggests they are judged by how they come out of the crisis and not by how they managed in the thick of it. In short, it’s a bounce, not a summit.

Just ask former premier Ernie Eves. After enjoying a significant boost in his approval ratings for managing through the SARS crisis and the 2003 blackout, Eves called an October election that year. He entered into the race with a commanding double-digit lead, which evaporated by election day, resulting in Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals sweeping into power (Disclosure: I was co-chair of the Eves campaign.)

This pattern repeats itself again and again. During the Iran hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter saw his approval rating jump 26 per cent. But in bungling the long-term handling of the crisis, Carter ended up losing the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan.

In June 2017, U.K. PM Theresa May, holding a 21-point lead and seeking to capitalize on her party’s grip on the Brexit file, confidently called a snap election. The result? She blew her majority and was returned to power with a weakened minority propped up by the fringe DUP. May’s miscalculation and the ensuing debacle prolonged the Brexit crisis.

Already, there are rumours in Ottawa about Liberals considering a fall election. But in addition to the logistical and practical nightmare of campaigning in the midst of a pandemic, the party should read history.

It is far too soon to declare Mission Accomplished when it comes to COVID-19. After all, a long road to recovery — in both public health and economic terms — remains ahead.

But political performance to date has not been for naught. In Ford’s case, his persona and presence are reinforcing the covenant he made with his voters when they elected him in the first place. He has also won a second chance with many other voters who had written off his government but now see the same qualities of leadership that his supporters have long endorsed. By focusing resolutely on the recovery still to come — in both substantive policy and communications terms — the premier stands to build on this strong foundation.

For both Trudeau and Ford, the political challenge will be to continue to remind voters of what they liked about what they saw during the crisis, as the hard, gruelling, unrelenting work of recovery continues.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt