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A working Parliament is more critical than ever

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on 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.

Pandemic Gets Political

This week on the “Pandemic Gets Political” edition of Political Traction, I’m joined by a panel of my colleagues from coast to coast to discuss the unique challenges provinces are grappling with amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Navigator’s Managing Principals Jason Hatcher and Philippe Gervais as well as our Special Advisor Brian Gallant help unpack the strengths and shortcomings of Canada’s first ministers when put to the ultimate test of leading their province into better days ahead.

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

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on 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.”

Food For Thought

This week on the “Food for Thought” edition of Political Traction, Lori Nikkel, CEO of Canada’s largest food rescue organization Second Harvest, unpacks what she and her team are doing to help feed Canadians through this pandemic. Second Harvest was established on a simple notion- don’t waste food- and in these tough times, it’s more important than ever to connect surplus food with those who need it most.

Democracy in the time of COVID-19

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on 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 pretence 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.