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

In the painful remembrance of HIV/AIDS, some lessons and some hope for today

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 3, 2020.

It’s not right, nor is it fair to compare one tragedy with another. To claim some grief more poignant than other grief.

But it is equally wrong to let new grief submerge the pain and memory of grief past.

As we come to grips with the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought on our communities, our health, our finances, our very way of life, it has also, for some of us, brought back painful reminders of another pandemic: HIV/AIDS, which has infected 74 million and killed 32 million people.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is one that I remember well. It decimated my community; robbed an entire generation of unrealized promise, sowed terror among us, changed how we lived and how we were intimate with each other.

Like COVID-19, it began in a seemingly far away place. A mysterious illness that started manifesting itself in otherwise healthy young men.

I remember reading about it for the first time in “The Body Politic,” sitting on the steps of the Second Cup at Church and Wellesley. I also remember paying it no mind. Those were glorious, carefree days. Days filled with the certainty of invincibility that is only the promise of the young.

And then, my friends began to get sick. More and more and more of my friends got sicker and sicker and sicker. And then, they started to die. So many that I stopped counting after I had gone to 50 funerals. I had yet to have my 30th birthday.

Not only did they die, they died with the cruel burden of stigma. AIDS phobia was rampant. It showed its ugly face in many ways. People were disowned by their families. Jobs and homes were lost. Medical care was hard to come by. Partners were not allowed to be together in the last hours of life. Funeral homes refused to collect bodies. Politicians turned a blind eye.

It was then we learned that we would have to look after ourselves. And look after ourselves we did. Some took to the streets in protest. Others committed acts of civil disobedience. Still more cared, cooked and cleaned for our sick when no one else would. And comforted them when they would otherwise have been abandoned.

As a community, we challenged the rules. We demanded to be heard. We changed the way drugs were brought to market. We built our own health care and support organizations. We insisted that people who were HIV+ were not HIV/AIDS victims but rather were people who were living, yes living, with HIV/AIDS. We changed the way we had sex.

And, in doing so, we brought about a revolution, the embers of which still burn today. After all these years, we continue to be a community more self-reliant, more resilient, more skeptical of authority and more caring than we ever were before.

We no longer take every day for granted, no longer believe that anything will last forever.

And while those lessons stayed with us, only years later did we understand just what those lessons meant. What all that pain taught us.

As I have been remembering that time, recalling those friends and partners I still miss today, wondering how on earth I cheated the disease, I’ve been thinking about what lessons we will take from this pandemic when the television lights turn off and the headlines recede.

Will we learn the importance of being more resilient? Of being better able to take care of ourselves as a country and as a people?

Will we understand people have been impacted by this pandemic in brutally unequal ways and that we, as a society, all pay a price for that? Will we be willing to rethink what fairness means?

Will we understand that we truly are in this together? That we really are each other?

In the worst days of the AIDS crisis, no one could imagine that they would one day marry their partner and society would celebrate it; that my now partner would be the proud grandfather of three.

Our challenge today is hard and may grow harder still, but I am optimistic because I know Canadians are already coming together, strengthening our communities and mending the divisions revealed in this pandemic.

Crises reveal our character — how good we are, how kind we are. And if you know where to look for it, that character and that kindness is where you will find our strength.

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

A working Parliament is more critical than ever

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Though it was justifiably overshadowed by last weekend’s tragedy in Nova Scotia and the ongoing pandemic itself, parliamentarians this week resolved an important debate over when and how the House of Commons and its committees will convene during this state of emergency.

This debate seemed like a distraction or even a nuisance to most. After all, the pressing concerns of the nation are immediate: getting payments to those in need, producing ventilators, sourcing raw materials for testing. But far from being an academic concern, the smooth and proper functioning of Parliament is actually now more critical than ever.

The compromise motion approved this week suspends regular sittings of all 338 MPs until May 25. Instead, it strikes a new COVID-19 committee whose members will meet on the floor once weekly, and virtually twice weekly. While the plan had the support of the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc, the Conservatives objected to this proposal, arguing that the prime minister has effectively replaced Parliament with daily press conferences; pointing out that even as MPs refuse to meet, construction workers continue to work daily renovating Centre Block.

The Opposition had a point: there is no reason that if other essential businesses have found a way to carry on by respecting social distancing and implementing necessary health and safety measures, the most essential business of all — government — cannot, or will not, bring itself to do the same.

But with this motion’s passage, an institution, much of whose strength flows from its aversion to change, has now itself changed. But it has hardly, as the expression goes, changed on a dime.

Real challenges remain for the speaker and his staff. There are MPs who represent rural ridings where broadband connectivity is spotty at best. The most popular teleconferencing software is insufficiently secure. Many MPs struggle with the technology. There is, surprisingly, no easy way to arrange for simultaneous translation. It is not clear if the laws of parliamentary privilege that protect members from defamation and libel lawsuits apply in the virtual realm. And, of course, other quaint, many would say anachronistic, customs, such as the tradition of directing remarks to the speaker instead of a specific member, may also need to be revisited. As you can see, the list goes on and on.

But beyond those challenges, Andrew Scheer and his party face a more substantial one: how to hold the government to account in the face of this new reality. Fortunately, he has some promising international examples to look to.

Westminster, the mother Parliament in the U.K., has adopted a similar “hybrid” approach to its sittings, in which a proportional fraction of members remains physically present while up to 120 participate virtually; either group may put questions to ministers.

And while it is not the same, they are making it work. It was, for example, hardly the end of the world last week when Sir Keir Starmer had to make his House of Commons debut as Britain’s opposition leader during prime minister’s questions without the customary cheering and hissing that mark such occasions.

All opposition parties struggle to find their voice in times of crisis. In Canada, it doesn’t help that not only is our opposition leader someone who has quit his job, the race to replace him has been suspended.

Yet the pressing need for checks and balances remains. As I wrote in this space two weeks ago, democracy is never as precarious as during a pandemic. The government has already shown itself unafraid of anti-democratic overreach. Its attempt to invest the minister of finance with sweeping emergency powers that would last 18 months being exhibit A. Only in the face of fierce public criticism, led by the opposition, did the government back down.

Make no mistake about it: there are legitimate questions to ask. And forget questions about what the government has done. That’s water under the bridge. No, questions need to be asked about this government’s plan for when and how it plans to reopen the economy and about when and how it plans to rebuild Canada.

And those questions need to be both asked, and answered, in our house, the House of Commons.

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

‘Made in Canada’ movement born when trusted trade deals quickly evaporated

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 19, 2020.

Of all the things underpinning our pre-COVID19 lives that we paid little mind to, supply chains would have been at the top of the list.

And for good reason. Parts were seamlessly delivered on a just-in-time basis to our factories. Shops were filled to the rafters with the latest fashions. Shelves were loaded with asparagus and fresh berries, even in the dead of winter.

But as the song goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and the past few weeks have shown how little time it takes for, if not it all to be gone, at least for the cupboard to be bare.

Initially, it was our reliance on Chinese goods that proved problematic as that country’s economy shut down. Since then, China has rebounded but at a cost. By leveraging its position as a vital supplier to the Western world, China has systemically strengthened its state power through commercial networks that manufacture and transport essential goods like medicines and personal protective equipment.

It’s no surprise that President Xi has taken advantage of this crisis to manoeuvre China toward greater dominance. It is also no surprise just how successful China has been in disrupting supply chains and isolating countries like Canada along the way.

To make matters worse, these moves come while our closest ally, the United States, seems intent on leaving us further isolated.

Two weeks ago, in a move Premier Ford declared “totally unacceptable,” U.S. officials halted the shipment to Ontario of 500,000 medical masks from manufacturer 3M.

The situation was resolved but the episode underscored the frightening reality that Canada, with zero domestic capacity to produce N95 masks, is wholly dependent on a supply chain built on trust.

So, amidst this never-before-contemplated disruption, maybe it’s time for a return to “made in Canada.”

Canada’s manufacturing sector has been shrinking for decades as trade deals like NAFTA have taken effect and production has moved overseas. For a long time, this decline has been characterized as the inevitable cost of globalization. But now, when Canada needs quick, reliable access to goods that we find more difficult than ever to acquire, we need to reconsider those assumptions.

We must recognize that, even setting aside COVID-19, the world has changed. Exhibit A? The 3M issue. It is simply inconceivable that Presidents Bush or Obama, or any other former president for that matter, would pressure an American company to withhold life-saving equipment from Canada.

So too, the nature of Chinese power has changed the world. This week, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, explicitly urged member governments to consider ownership stakes in European companies whose tumbling stock market values may leave them susceptible to Chinese takeover during or after this pandemic. Canada’s industries are equally susceptible to anti-competitive efforts by China.

Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole has leapt on these trends. In a campaign video released this week, O’Toole called out “corrupt foreign governments” and “incompetent global institutions,” like China and the World Health Organization, which have left Canada to fend for itself. O’Toole’s solution? “Buy, build, and grow Canadian.”

In the latter half of the 20th century, Canada’s economy was denationalized — through the sale of Crown corporations like Petro Canada, CN Rail and Air Canada — in the belief that the same public policy outcomes, previously pursued through ownership, could be achieved through regulation. At that time, both citizens and governments felt confident in the effectiveness of those regulatory policy tools.

As our leaders plan their long-term response to our latest economic catastrophe, already christened “the Great Lockdown,” it is worth asking whether they continue to have the same confidence in those same policy tools.

It’s possible that Canada’s response to the long-term problems this crisis has exposed will rely on not only a new role for the private sector but also a new relationship between public and private sector. As the last recession taught us, government bailouts alone will not bring back Canadian manufacturing. Nor will they bring us a supply chain we can trust.

That’s something that will take all of us — government, business and all Canadians — to do. As the prime minister says, “we are all in this together.”

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

Democracy in the time of COVID-19

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 12, 2020.

Among the more concerning broader societal consequences of the coronavirus — economic collapse, fear-mongering, widespread distrust — is a stunningly rapid deterioration of democracy.

To exploit popular anxiety as a pretense to seize power is a tactic as old as plague itself. When William Cecil, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth I, was battling the Black Death, he won the ability to shut the sick inside their homes for up to six weeks (likely reasonable enough) but then went on to pass the Plague Act of 1604, which banned any criticism of this unprecedented power.

Dealing effectively with pandemics can reasonably support the suspension of some norms and freedoms, but a careful balance must be struck.

We have already seen the virus extinguish popular protest movements from Iran to Hong Kong. Now, in some places, we are seeing how it threatens democracy itself.

To be clear, this is not about the lockdowns, quarantines, and mandatory physical distancing measures imposed by almost every responsible government in response to COVID-19. But even these sensible rules, in most cases guided by the advice of public health authorities, have resulted in penalties that can be unduly heavy-handed. Steep fines, such as the $300,000 one levelled against a Brampton-area man who hosted a backyard party for 20 friends, are an example. Surely there are reasonable limits to such sanctions.

What does concern me are the ominous cases of democratic rollbacks, like the ones we are now witnessing in Hungary. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed through a draconian law that allows the prime minister to rule by decree, suspend Parliament and repeal any existing law and do so indefinitely.

The state will now impose years-long jail terms for sharing nebulously defined “fake news,” or acting to impede the response to the virus, giving the authorities wide latitude to imprison political dissidents. While these measures firmly tip the EU member state from democracy to dictatorship, the rest of the Union, mired as they are in their own COVID-19 response problems, hardly seem to have noticed.

Hungary is not walking this dangerous path alone. In Thailand, the prime minister has used his new powers to impose harsh curfews and expand censorship of the news media. In Chile, the military patrol the streets and public squares, having conveniently crushed protestors who had disrupted the country for months before the virus arrived.

And the list goes on. Amid the panic of the pandemic, it can be difficult to detect where, exactly, the line falls between justified response and anti-democratic exploitation. Some of the countries that have been most successful at flattening the curve have deployed aggressive contact tracing techniques that, on their face, would violate civil rights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the use of invasive cellphone location tracking, intended for counterterrorism, to track those who test positive for the virus and monitor others with whom they may have come into contact. The South Korean government’s policy of releasing detailed information including the names and movements of newly diagnosed cases has inadvertently revealed sexual affairs and other embarrassing personal information.

What’s more, even well-established democracies are flirting with injustice. Despite pleas from the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, the Republican-dominated legislature, abetted by the state Supreme Court, has used the crisis to play partisan politics. In recent voting, it refused to extend the window for mail-in ballots and reduced the number of polling stations in the state from 180 to five, all of which were conveniently located in areas that lean Republican.

As the curve is flattened and the threat of the virus recedes, it remains to be seen how many of these unjust measures will be repealed. The last time Orban awarded himself extraordinary powers under the guise of an emergency — powers he has yet to relinquish — it was the 2011 migrant crisis.

What every strongman has understood, from Cecil to Orban, is that a frightened public is also a compliant public. For the sake of our democracy, our leaders must understand that while we are willing to be compliant, to do our duty, to surrender some of our individual rights and liberties for the collective good, we are not frightened. Not in the least.

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

Alberta’s ‘double-whammy’ is a lesson for Canada


This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 5, 2020.

The COVID-19 humanitarian crisis is compounded in its severity by an economic crisis that, like the virus, is worsening exponentially. Nowhere is this more pronounced than Alberta where, this week, the price of Western Canadian Select oil plummeted below $5 a barrel — equivalent to the price of a pint of beer.

We are facing the prospect of a depression that will leave no Canadian untouched. Every industry is experiencing the sharpest downturn in living memory as the economy has gone into deep freeze. But in a country where the energy sector accounts for more than a tenth of GDP, and a region where hundreds of thousands rely on that industry for their livelihood, the wholly politically engineered disaster of dirt-cheap oil is tragedy upon tragedy, akin to kicking someone already down.

In early March, when talks stalled between Russia and OPEC, the price of crude oil plunged by a third, thanks to deliberate decisions to flood supply in the market made by Moscow and Riyadh. What’s worse, the repercussions of the OPEC price war have been compounded by massive declines in demand as the world’s two largest oil consumers — China and the United States — moved toward total lockdown in response to the pandemic.

Just as Alberta and Canada’s economy were bolting down for the impact of COVID-19, the OPEC issue has brought challenges for the energy sector in general to the fore. While the impact may look different for conventional versus renewable energy companies, the reality is that both are united in their reliance on access to capital. Across the entire economy, that capital will now be much more difficult to attain than it has been for a long time.

The result? A crisis of unprecedented magnitude.

The falling price of oil means not only is the energy sector hurting but Albertans are seriously hurting right now as well.

And that’s bad news for every Canadian. For all the talk of economic recovery in Canada, we need to face the reality that we won’t have a recovery in this country without the energy sector. It plays a central role in our economy. It is critical for the effective functioning of almost every other industry as well.

And importantly the energy sector goes well beyond Alberta, too. One need look no further than the dire state of affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the combined impact of COVID-19 and the oil crash has left the province in financial ruin.

It may be that the Trudeau Liberals are reluctant to take action to benefit the oilpatch while other sectors, the ones whose impact is more personal to many Canadians, are still reeling. But as our government moves forward with bailout plans for strategic sectors and looks at options to quickly restart the economy, it would be unconscionable — foolhardy to boot — to leave the energy sector behind.

Whether it is conventional or renewable, energy is one industry that can have a direct and immediate impact on jobs, stimulate investment and create benefits for communities small and large, including Indigenous communities.

That said, no matter how well calibrated the response, the impact will be devastating. There will be significant consolidation in the sector.

In the long run, though, this will provide a pivotal opportunity for innovators to come out on top and, in doing so, transform Canadian energy. It is a movie we have seen before: some of the current oilpatch leaders were born out of a previous downturn. Newer companies will be doing things better, with more efficient and sustainable methods.

The key to a successful government response will be not to shy away from traditional oil and gas producers but rather, partly out of economic necessity, to embrace them. And, at the same time, embrace the kind of technology and solutions needed to help the industry achieve a lower carbon footprint. That is where the opportunity lies. Ottawa cannot afford to miss out on it. Canadians certainly can’t.

Especially now that, just when we were facing the greatest challenge of our lifetimes, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others were content to effectively destroy our own energy industry.

Perhaps now, we will all listen more intently to Premier Jason Kenney’s long-standing pleas for North American energy independence.

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