Hindsight is 2020: A Walk Through Canadian Pandemic Politics

2020 was a year that Canada and the world won’t soon forget. A year marked by economic and political upheaval, by protests, blockades, resignations, scandals, and all the trappings of a truly historic year. With lots of attention paid to our neighbours down south, and the status of the coronavirus worldwide, it’s important to remind Canadians of the political events that transpired in 2020, how they shaped the government’s COVID-19 and economic response, and what they could mean for the next federal election and beyond.

In the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals were still focused on repairing the brand damage done to their party and leader after four years of governing in a majority. With slips ups and scandals like the Aga Khan vacation, Mr. Trudeau’s over-the-top trip to India, the SNC Lavalin affair, and the blackface scandal, the 2015 bloom had come off the Liberal-red rose. Despite these problems, the Liberals won the 2019 election, and the government had high hopes of getting to work on their key platform priorities, like more money for middle class families, real action to address climate change, and support for Indigenous peoples.

After scraping by with a minority government on the strength of these priorities, and before COVID came to Canada, the government already had their hands full with other pressing issues, namely the Wet’suwet’en rail blockades, the ratification of the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement, and the controversial Teck Frontier Mine decision. Despite how many of us must feel, all these events happened only one year ago, and not ten.

No doubt the three main platform planks are still policy directions the Liberals hold dear, but action on these files, even the evergreen urgency of climate change, have fallen to second, third, and fourth places behind the pandemic health and economic responses. So how has the Liberal government handled the political environment surrounding the single greatest challenge of their time in office?

That depends on when you ask.

In January 2020, early in the global pandemic, when news and case numbers from Wuhan, China showed the coronavirus to be a serious health risk, the Canadian government was watching closely, but would not be derailed from the full plate they already had. Staying on message is job number one for any political actor in government, and so trepidation over addressing an emerging disease half a world away is simply good politics, if perhaps bad policy. The opposition Conservatives would later seize upon this trepidation to accuse the government of inaction at a critical time, to some effect. The government would instead focus time and energy on assuring Canadians that the risk to our country was low. Whether this was true at the time or just wishful thinking, that claim would soon be proven terribly wrong.

As February wore on, more information trickled out of China, and discussions began about the importance of handwashing, limiting contacts, and the possibility of requiring masks in public, which the government and Canadian public health officials opposed at the time. This was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the response, as international medical data had shown for years that, despite some possible issues with masking a population that wasn’t used to it, masks are effective at preventing disease spread. The political calculation was a tough one for the government: do we buck the trend of most western countries and force everyone to mask-up, skyrocketing public demand for PPE and creating resentment for this sudden and personal change, or do we wait and see? Choosing to acknowledge a crisis is tough, as any crisis communications expert will tell you, but prompt acknowledgement gives way to quick action, which was sorely lacking in the early pandemic response.

By early March, 114 countries had announced domestic cases of COVID-19, and on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Within five days, the government had issued guidance on travelling to and from Canada and began the process of rolling out aid. Another two days, and the border with the US would be closed. By this point, Wuhan was reporting no new cases, while western countries were just beginning to grapple with the new normal.

By the end of March, in the thick of the pandemic and first lockdown, the government’s badly needed $240 billion aid package, the Prime Minister’s regular TV addresses, and the new investments put into vaccine and treatment research had all brought Mr. Trudeau’s popularity to a new high, particularly when compared to the lacklustre US response. Canadians broadly supported the Prime Minster’s direction, and even deficit-focused political observers found themselves unable or unwilling to effectively push back on huge deficit spending for the sake of health and the economy. The Liberals were clearly in their political element, spending big dollars and being commended for doing so – a political trend that would not last.

Moving into the spring, the WHO would finally recommend wearing face masks in public, nearly a month after declaring a pandemic. Canadians would mostly follow this advice, leading to two of the Liberals’ biggest political challenges in the spring, namely procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and mask controversies. To their credit, the government’s messaging was clear and so consistent as to be monotonous: Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay at home, keep your distance. The government’s procurement ability, however, was seriously strained, with concerns arising over the quantities of PPE stockpiled in the National Emergency Stockpile System, leading to easy jabs from the Conservative opposition over resource mismanagement. All the complexities of procuring PPE in a highly competitive global environment are inconsequential when faced with the stark reality that Canada did not have enough PPE, and it was damaging the government’s reputation.

Procurement was not the only headache for Mr. Trudeau. His party was also being accused of intentionally preventing Parliament from sitting, presumably to prevent scrutiny of their pandemic response. However, on April 20, Parliament returned as promised, with committees studying various aspects of the response. Regular political battles would return over these and other topics, including the government’s contact tracing app, availability of rapid testing, border closures, supporting supply chains, and the beginning of the federal vaccine procurement strategy. None of these topics would immediately prove to be political winners for the opposition, with the exception of now-Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner’s relentless pursuit of transparency on rapid testing.

By the start of summer, Canada would have crested the first wave, and Canadians were feeling like they had beaten the virus. So much so that the warm weather and faux confidence would entice many in population-dense areas to congregate at beaches and shopping malls, parties and bars, all without adequate contact tracing and sometimes even masks or social distancing. This, along with the relaxing of public health measures and the reopening of non-essential businesses, would accelerate the second wave of the pandemic. Politically, all Canadian governments were in another tight spot. With high levels of unemployment, bankruptcies, and business closures on top of COVID cases and deaths, governments needed to strike a balance between keeping the economy open just enough to prevent total collapse, while not seriously worsening public health outcomes. In short, an impossible task, which was made worse by the lack of coordination between the federal and provincial governments. Indeed, the fact that no single organization was responsible for the entirety of the country’s pandemic response led to serious data gaps, procurement challenges, funding issues, regulatory confusion, and simply mixed messaging on COVID rules. The federal nature of our country, although a symbol of representative democracy, was now working against us.

As we moved further into the summer, Canadian politics were relatively quiet. Parliament was sitting only occasionally, and the federal government was focused on maintaining the then-low case numbers of COVID-19. Suddenly, in late June, the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) was announced, plunging the government into what would become known as the WE Charity scandal. After months of partisan wrangling, Mr. Trudeau’s third ethics scandal ultimately caused a major dent in Liberal Party support. This was not helped by Mr. Trudeau’s prorogation of Parliament in August, which many political observers believed was done to prevent committees from investigating the CSSG further. The parallels between this Prime Minister and his predecessor were not lost on keen political watchers. Politically, the ramifications were significant. The Prime Minister was being investigated for failing to recuse himself from the CSSG decision, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau was forced to resign for accepting free travel from WE, to be replaced by Minister-of-Everything Chrystia Freeland, ushering in a new tone and a more leftward swing to government fiscal policy. Nowhere is that clearer than the $100 billion over three years promised in the Fall Economic Statement (FES), another astronomical sum on top of already-significant pandemic spending. With the first wave behind us, politicians started in with criticism of the government’s response, with questions on possible rising interest rates, the sustainability of government deficit financing, and missing support for left-behind sectors like airlines and oil and gas. Even a pandemic can only halt regular politics for so long.

In the fall, and heading into the holiday season, Canada saw schools reopen and, perhaps consequentially, the emergence of the fated second wave of COVID. As the world got colder, Canadians began to hibernate, staying in as much to stay warm as to stay safe. After robust debate and discussion on the FES, Canadian politics took a long winter nap as lockdowns took effect. The government unveiled the first of the new Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines in an attempt to showcase the government’s procurement ability, but with the hindsight of the vaccine procurement problems we’re seeing today, it risks being remembered as another example of the “all style, no substance” mode of governing the Liberals have often been accused of.

Now, with a forecast election on the horizon, and with the Liberals’ re-election hopes pinned to a safe, effective, and thorough vaccine rollout by September, Canadian politics are on a knife-edge. The country is waiting to see how many vaccines enter Canada, and if the Liberals can keep their key promise. Domestic and international observers are criticizing the Liberals for drawing vaccine doses from the COVAX initiative intended for developed countries. Opposition parties are watching and waiting, not wanting to be the one to trigger an election in a pandemic, while also trying to keep pressure on the government. The Liberals, for their part, are hoping vaccines come in on schedule, or at least that they can call, run, and win an election before a possible reckoning in the fall. With only 7 months to vaccinate 36 million Canadians, and with thousands of cases arising per day nationwide, the stakes have never been this high.

COVID-19 was the defining issue for the Liberal government this past year, but it may end up being their undoing. Pandemics are an example of the very thing humankind is worst equipped to handle: an invisible, deadly enemy that requires quick, decisive, and most importantly, communal action. Most Canadians understand this and may even sympathize with a government forced to react quickly and forgive some of the mistakes when they are at the ballot box, but any party that says they could have done this better is probably wrong. The Liberals have spent big money, money that has been heralded by most Canadians as the right move for the moment. But government coffers are not infinite, and neither is the lifespan of a minority government. As the Liberals near the typical 18-month lifetime of a minority in Canada, with the vaccine rollout stuck in first gear and an ambitious agenda planned for their hopeful post-COVID majority, will Canadians see fit to re-elect Justin Trudeau and a Liberal Government? Or will Canadians tire of the endless spending and seek change? One thing is for sure, if the vaccine distribution plan continues to falter, Conservative Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole may just have the opening he’s been waiting for.

 

Tyler Downey, Consultant at Ensight Canada