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As election speculation reaches a fever pitch, some advice for our federal party leaders

Finally, summer is well and truly here.

After a particularly gruelling spring complete with a few intermittent “false” summer days, the weather has warmed and reminded us just how lucky we are to live in this beautiful country — glorious and free.

Yet, as the idyll of summer approaches, there lurks a disruption on our road to a return to a new normal: a federal election campaign.

With vaccine rates outpacing most predictions and months of election speculation reaching a fever pitch, it seems ever more likely that Trudeau will push forward to the polls.

So, before the summer break begins in earnest, a bit of advice for each leader as they prepare for a gruelling campaign.

First, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul.

If you hadn’t heard of Paul before, you may well have been introduced to her through reports of party infighting, or the floor crossing of former Green MP Jenica Atwin to the Liberals.

Notwithstanding all that noise, Paul is a figure to watch. She is the first Black Canadian and the first Jewish woman to lead a federal party. She is also the subject of a leadership review that could see her removed as leader on July 15.

If she survives, my advice is simple: prove your mettle. If racism and misogyny in the Green ranks is indeed the root of this leadership challenge, clean it up. Fast.

At the same time, make the most of this moment, because the Greens may never get more coverage than they will in the coming months.

For Jagmeet Singh, this election will be pivotal.

The NDP have been largely absent over the course of the pandemic, forced to prop up Trudeau’s recovery agenda while the Liberals eat their lunch with big spending on socially liberal policies.

So far, Singh has failed to show that his party can form an effective opposition. It is time for him to do so, or risk proving right those in his caucus who have accused him of frittering away the last year.

Next up, with 32 seats in the House, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet.

Of all the leaders, I would bet that Blanchet is sleeping most soundly ahead of a pending campaign.

That’s because he has the lowest bar to reach. Having won 22 new seats in 2019 and proven himself adept at winning concessions in Parliament for Quebecers, Blanchet simply has to hold enough seats to maintain that influence.

Now, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

In normal times, the campaign would be a proving ground for a rookie leader like O’Toole — but these are not normal times. O’Toole’s party members will expect him to hold the Liberals to at least a minority if he is going to be secure in his leadership.

My advice? Think beyond COVID. Show Canadians you can lead the country. Demonstrate how you will deliver on a broader range of issues.

And keep moving fast. While members have complained of O’Toole’s decisive action on items like climate policy and removing Derek Sloan from caucus, he has proven himself so far. O’Toole has shown a pragmatic determination to make the party more competitive in today’s world.

He knows, after all, that come fall, the Liberals will do what they do best: tie Conservatives to the spectre of a hidden anti-choice and climate-skeptical agenda. If O’Toole maintains his momentum, he will be much better positioned to defend himself.

Finally, to the prime minister: prepare for the fight of your life.

The pandemic has bought the Liberals breathing room as the opposition parties avoid division and the country has “rallied around the flag.”

But once the writ is dropped, all bets are off. The opposition parties will be out to tar the Liberals for their COVID record. And the patty-cake relationship with provincial leaders will fall to the wayside.

For Justin Trudeau, a minority win is not enough. If he can’t win a majority, he may as well hit the road.

But don’t count the PM out. He is at his best when he is in a fight — and he and his team know how to fight. Trudeau has the best pathway to a win of any of the leaders. His challenge will be having the discipline to stay the course.

World leaders seem to think the Trump years were nothing but a bad dream. It’s time for them to wake up

Last week’s G7 summit in Cornwall was the very model of modern, multilateral politicking. Against the backdrop of sunny beaches and clear blue skies, leaders of some of the world’s largest economies walked and talked, posing together every step of the way.

Pre-summit hopes had been in overdrive. Cornwall was, after all, the first such summit in the so-called post-COVID era, and the first G7 attended by the new leaders of Italy, Japan, the United States and the European Union. A more civilized, internationalist approach to the issues of the day seemed to be heralded by the inclusion of leaders from Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa.

But despite all the promise of a brighter tomorrow inherent in the summit, a crippling sense of nostalgia or, more accurately, amnesia turned out to be the dominant theme.

Perhaps that’s because, to a person, the leaders onstage seemed content to pretend the last four years of contentious feuding, silly gamesmanship and embarrassing breaches of protocol and convention had been a blip. A speed bump on the otherwise open road to greater co-operation and interdependence among nations.

Indeed, apart from elbow bumping in lieu of handshakes, the summit could well have taken place in 2015 — before COVID wrought havoc over the globe; before Donald Trump walked all over the idea of unity among western allies with his grandstanding.

But no amount of self-congratulatory affection between western leaders could return us to that halcyon era. So, we were instead forced to watch as the G7 proved itself unable to grapple with reality. In the process, it became painfully obvious that the institution is not fit for purpose.

Sure, some accomplishments were achieved — but they entailed a healthy dose of hypocrisy.

The meeting agreed to donate one billion COVID vaccines to the COVAX sharing initiative — though Canada’s own contributions will only come from returning the vaccines it took from COVAX in the first place!

The gathered countries also pledged to support the education of 40 million girls globally. Sadly, this pledge has been described as an “empty promise,” given the host country’s own decision to cut its overseas aid commitments — including those aimed at girls’ education!

Although leaders reached an agreement on reducing carbon emissions, ultimately it is woefully insufficient in the eyes of climate advocates. Activist Greta Thunberg sarcastically noted that “G7 leaders seem to be having a good time presenting their empty climate commitments.”

But perhaps the greatest oversight of all was on the part of world leaders who celebrated the return of a U.S. president who is “part of the club,” to quote French President Macron.

The unfortunate reality seems to be that Macron, German Chancellor Merkel and their fellow internationalists — our prime minister included — are behaving as though the Trump years were an aberration, rather than a sign of the times. They forget that a plurality of Americans and a majority of Republicans have made it clear they’d rather blow up their club altogether.

Of course, a large part of this complex stems from the group’s disdain for Trump. Aside from Britain’s Boris Johnson, no G7 leader could stand the former president. Because they found him so repugnant, they refused to acknowledge his legitimacy or his impact on the global order. And they refuse to imagine that the U.S. may well return to his form of politics.

But given the state of the American public opinion, it is not inconceivable that a more palatable Trump minion could be sworn into the Oval Office in 2024.

And there is one leader who is wise to this possibility: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following their meeting, Putin capitalized on political rifts in the U.S. by questioning the legitimacy of arresting those involved in the Jan. 6 uprising.

“People came to the U.S. Congress with political demands … they’re being called domestic terrorists,” Putin said.

For his part, Putin clearly understands the same fault lines that delivered Donald Trump to office are still very much active. Let’s hope his western counterparts wake up to the same.

The pandemic proved we need less red tape. Repealed regulations should stay that way

Inevitably, over time, the differences between elected governments and the bureaucracies that serve them blur. The result? They join together in one of the great pursuits of governing: the creation of the unnecessary regulation.

Then the pendulum swings and a new government comes to power, having campaigned on a promise to sweep away the cobwebs and modernize our regulatory state.

Though it feels like ancient history, there was once a time when the Ford government might well have been defined by its efforts at reducing red tape. After all, once in office, Ford and his government quickly brought forward at least four rounds of legislation, efficiently packaging together repeals of outdated or redundant regulations. It was the kind of sensible, small-government reform that Ford has always excelled at selling his voters on. “We have counted some 386,000 regulations. We will cut 25 per cent of them.”

It’s not quite clear how far they got, because COVID-19 disrupted this work — or, as it now appears, advanced it in some unexpected ways. As we look ahead to the end of the pandemic, the question to ask ourselves is what we want to carry with us into the future, and what we want to leave behind.

In a funny way, the pandemic has been the ultimate exercise in red-tape reduction. Out of dire necessity, we stripped away a whole host of outdated and illogical regulations (adding, of course, many others for reasons of health and safety).

Sixteen months later, and suddenly no one can remember why restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol with takeout or delivery in the first place, or why one couldn’t attend a courtroom hearing virtually, or file some paperwork with the government by uploading it online.

It turns out we don’t need endless public consultations, study after study and a pilot project with a report to be considered — all to make a common-sense change to our liquor laws or any of these other areas of public policy.

We can simply cut to the chase.

These are just three small examples — there are countless other instances of burdensome rules or regulations that were repealed in short order for us to function during the pandemic.

The Ontario government is not the only one to learn this lesson. In the field of philanthropy, Mackenzie Scott’s similarly inspired approach to giving also dispenses with unnecessary red tape.

Since her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Scott has gone on an unprecedented donation spree, giving away $7 billion to nearly 400 organizations in a span of just four months.

She has achieved this by moving swiftly to identify a worthy charity and then giving a substantial gift with no strings attached. Oftentimes, she has given to causes that were considered “unsexy” or overlooked, like affordable housing lenders or historically Black colleges and universities.

Compare this approach to the one taken by the Gates Foundation, which gave away over $6 billion last year but employs 1,600 people and has years of network-building behind it. With Scott’s method, there is no proposal stage, no massive team, no protracted negotiations — just a worthy recipient and a much-needed infusion of cash.

If her approach sounds so simple as to be obvious, well, it is — but it took the profound crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic for us all to realize that there were different, and maybe even better, ways of doing things.

There is nothing wrong with the Gates approach, just as there was nothing self-evidently “wrong” about Ontario’s old ways. It was just that a better way of doing business existed, if we cared to reach for it.

Of course, regulations are needed, but there is no reason that any regulation repealed during the pandemic should not simply stay repealed. Finally, the onus has been reversed — let the rule-mongers make the case for why some ordinance must come back.

My hope, post-pandemic, is that we have the courage to put its lessons to good use. Keep what we need to but embrace our creativity to change what we can. I also wish for my pizza to continue to arrive accompanied by a great pinot.

This Pride month evokes the tension between battles for legal rights and public recognition. For Canadians, that history is unique

Happy Pride. It’s become a refrain you’ll hear again and again this month — from colleagues, friends, family, your favourite sports team, your bank, your dentist…

Indeed, Pride, and the deluge of rainbow ribbons that arrives with it, has become the event of the season for corporate Canada.

Most would agree that the rush of brands to wrap themselves in the rainbow flag for the month of June is both symbolically and practically important.

And despite its faults — it has been decried as virtue signalling, or worse, “pinkwashing” — I will happily take even performative displays of LGTBQ support over the alternative: deafening silence.

That is especially true this year, when so much seems so uncertain. In Canada, the vestiges of institutional homophobia have reared their heads as the government rushes to ban conversion therapy and faces pressure to end the discriminatory blood ban. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have recently descended into a politically vacuous and morally reprehensible fixation on trans rights.

And before the month is out, the U.S. Supreme Court will deliver its ruling in a case with important implications for LGBTQ rights: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case, which hinges on whether religiously affiliated foster care agencies are entitled to turn away same-sex couples, may have a disappointing outcome.

Legislative battles that emerge from embers. Court challenges that spring from the fertile minds of lawyers. Homophobic responses rooted in everyday life. Reminders all of the work that remains to be done.

Over the decades, there has always been strong tension within the LGBTQ community around how to win the fight for equality, with much of that argument coming down to the proverbial question about the chicken or the egg.

Some believed that we had to first win the battle for the hearts and minds of our family and friends, now fashionably called Allies, before we could hope to get the laws changed.

Others believed Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” These people believed it was essential to win in the courts first.

Today, it is obvious that these two approaches, more than not being mutually exclusive, are in fact mutually dependent.

In the pre-Stonewall era of the 1960s, the fight for equality hinged on recognition as a “respectable” minority that could assimilate into the establishment. LGBTQ leaders emphasized propriety in the public eye and quiet recognition in the courts.

Then came Stonewall, and shortly thereafter, the Pride parades we know today. Singular moments when the focus shifted toward public recognition and visibility. In the United States, that shift came before the eventual legal victories, wherein the rights of LGBTQ Americans were affirmed by the Supreme Court.

In Canada, the story is somewhat different; the distinctions in our own fight for equality mimic the nuances of our system. That’s largely because of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the fact that — despite the grumbling of certain politicians — Canadians are a people of the charter.

True, Canadian activists needed the courts to enshrine LGBTQ rights, and yes, a great effort was made to win over the hearts and minds of Canadians.

But ultimately, once the LGBTQ community was able to transform our fight into a charter fight, the battle was won. By wrapping our fight in the charter, Canadians could see that it was also their fight — that a threat to any charter protection was a threat to all Canadians.

And so, the tension between public advocacy and legal recognition, which was unique in Canada, provided the most precious of results. It provided us a country where — while law has given us equality — the people have given us true and genuine inclusiveness.

An inclusiveness which will not soon disappear. An inclusiveness that, whilst imperfect, is still something that makes this gay man, partner, father and grandfather a proud Canadian.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy is the next big challenge in returning to ‘normal’

From the beginning of this bloody thing, even with uncertainty and confusion on all fronts, one thing was always known: vaccines would save the day.

Everything else — from PPE to stimulus — has simply been to tide us over, to keep us safe and save our lives until that wondrous day arrives when our country can truly return to “normal.”

Yet for all their promise, a stockpile of viable vaccines is only half the battle. Although those of us desperate for a jab cannot fathom it, many people simply refuse to join the ranks of the COVID inoculated.

Last month, NPR released a poll revealing that one in four Americans say they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine if offered one.

In Canada, the picture is only slightly less grim. An Abacus poll from April found that eight per cent of Canadians said they “will never take” a COVID-19 vaccine, while 28 per cent would rather wait or would prefer not to take the vaccine. The NPR-Abacus findings are apples to oranges, but that level of hesitancy response does not inspire hope for the prime minister’s “one-shot summer.”

In the U.S., vaccine hesitancy has been somewhat of a bogeyman, as in a recent New York Times headline that made the stakes crystal clear: “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe.” Given the centrality of herd immunity to the country’s vision of a post-COVID future, the headline editor may well have gone with: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”

Earlier this year, I wrote about the unique challenge a vaccination drive presents for our times. In an era of misinformation, distrust in institutions and anti-vax quackery, I argued, it would be harder than ever to get the job done. Since then, a rising tide of news stories and missteps by different levels of government have further eroded confidence in the process.

Blessedly, this unique challenge is being met with inventive solutions — a combination of incentives, social pressures and targeted outreach.

Consider the incentives. Facing a mammoth problem of human motivation, different organizations and leaders have come up with some very large carrots to move things along.

In a bid to get its campus inoculated, the University of Lethbridge has created a prize draw for vaccinated students that offers a chance to win free tuition for the fall term. The State of Ohio has taken this approach even further, with Republican Gov. Mike DeWine establishing a million-dollar lottery for vaccinated adults.

Around the world, some have chosen to focus on the stick, rather than the carrot. In Jakarta, the government has established a fine equivalent to $355 for residents who refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, especially hefty in a country where nearly 10 per cent of the population lives on one dollar a day.

Ultimately, vaccine hesitancy speaks to the slipperiest of social phenomena: trust. When it comes to human nature, trust is truly a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. That’s because it’s the product of so many disparate considerations: a society’s political culture, its history, its relationship with truth and crucially, an individual or group’s role within that culture.

Battling vaccine hesitancy, the most important solutions are those that recognize all these root factors — because simple incentives can only go so far when the issue is structural.

Health advocates in the U.S. have argued that skepticism among some Black Americans is driven in part by a history of abuse and marginalization by the medical community. Long-term solutions, they say, must address the structures of a health care system that leaves them behind.

While some in Canada suggest that a comparable history is driving vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous communities, there’s little evidence to that effect. It is more a matter of reaching people where they are — through Facebook and community radio for instance — and providing the right information.

Overall, it appears our culture and history make Canadians less likely to resist a vaccine in the long-term. So, while eight per cent “never taking” a vaccine seems disheartening, remember that we have tools at our disposal to reach the malleable 28 per cent who would “rather wait/prefer not to.” If we can use them effectively, even the eight per cent can’t hold us back from a return to our normal lives. Amen.