Chairman's Desk

After an unseasonably cooperative summer, the chill of realpolitik is setting in

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on October 25, 2020.

As the warmth of summer has faded and the chill of fall set in, we have felt a similar change in temperature in legislatures across Canada.

From the House of Commons to Queen’s Park to the Alberta Legislative Assembly and the Quebec National Assembly. From provincial capitals to city halls, the tone of pandemic politics has shifted significantly. After seven months of relatively cordial, pragmatic and cooperative policy making, it seems the time for playing “patty cake” across the aisle has passed. Welcome back to reality.

Since March, the story of Canada’s pandemic response has been one of unprecedented teamwork between different parties and levels of government. To be sure, there have been tensions in Ottawa but for the most part, the Liberals have been able to rely on NDP and Green support to pass their COVID-19 agenda. But let’s not assign either party too many brownie points. Neither could afford the consequences of not supporting the government: an election.

However, this week marked a definite turn toward a more confrontational style of governing by the prime minister and his cabinet. Facing the prospect of new Opposition-led oversight efforts, Trudeau and Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez launched a game of high-stakes chicken.

By daring opposition parties to trigger an election, the Liberals have shown they are not afraid to play hardball to avoid legislative paralysis-by-investigation. In so doing, they’ve also made it clear they don’t intend to water down their pandemic plans to please their opponents in the House. So until the NDP and the Greens decide they have had enough, we can expect the partisan brawling to get even messier. So long, sunny ways.

Across the country, a similar process is taking place as political leaders eschew COVID cooperation in favour of closing ranks and turning on their would-be partners.

In British Columbia, Premier John Horgan was quick to turn on the BC Greens who have supported his government since 2017. Not only did the premier renege on his pledge to avoid an early trip to the polls, he’s also laid blame for the election on the other parties. Whether you view Horgan’s decision as necessary pragmatism or opportunistic overreach, his motive is clear: to exploit a pandemic opportunity to sideline his opponents and implement his agenda, his way.

And then there is the most improbable of COVID-induced friendships: the Ontario Conservatives and the federal Liberals. Last spring, Premier Ford and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland made the strangest of bedfellows. Ford called Freeland “amazing.” She said, “he’s my therapist.” Now, even that relationship is being tested.

After the Liberals’ throne speech, Ford expressed his disappointment at Ottawa’s reluctance to invest its “fair share” in healthcare. The premier has also accused Ottawa of being too lax with quarantine restrictions and has repeatedly criticized Health Canada for delays in testing across the province.

The awkwardness of this post-honeymoon phase crystallized in a joint announcement by the prime minister and Premier Ford, when the two leaders were asked what had changed in their previously rocky relationship. Ever the realist, Ford’s assessment of the political reality was very straightforward: “A big chunk of them that voted for the prime minister, voted for me. People expect us to work together.”

Ford’s right: Ontarians want him to work with the prime minister and with his favourability numbers sliding, the premier would be wise to listen. But that cooperation will become more difficult as the second wave worsens and provincial and federal priorities diverge.

And as we saw with Ford’s initial disagreements over indoor dining with Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, it is one thing to mend over political disagreements and coalesce around a scientific consensus. It is another thing entirely to find common ground when the nuances in different public health advice leave room for disagreement.

For all of us, pandemic fatigue will grow worse as the days grow shorter. For our politicians, they will grow fatigued with getting along with their natural opponents.

The problem is, this COVID thing isn’t over. We all have to put our big kid pants on, and keep our fatigue in check.