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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 Repealed regulations should stay that way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his government quickly brought forward at least four rounds of legislation, efficiently packaging together repeals of outdated or redundant regulations.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 Out of dire necessity, we stripped away a whole host of outdated and illogical regulations (adding, of course, many others for reasons of health and safety).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These are just three small examples — there are countless other instances of burdensome rules or regulations that were repealed in short order for us to function during the pandemic.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.

New polling shows deep changes in who Canadians trust — most politicians are down, while scientific community and smaller businesses are up

As winter melts into spring and vaccination rates rise steadily, the end of the pandemic has, mercifully, begun. The indescribable events we have lived through this past year and a half have shaken us to our core, leading us to question our most fundamental beliefs — about the role of government, business and other institutions, and about the competency of the leaders within those institutions.

When it comes to assessing the impact of events like the COVID-19 pandemic, you need to look at the horse race numbers and you need to look underneath to what is often referred to as the “architecture” of the opinion.

And there you find one of the most common measures is trust. Trust can be a very slippery thing in polling: distinct from “approval,” and less committed than “support,” it reflects an intangible faith in an individual or institution’s moral compass — faith that they will do the right thing, even in the depths of a crisis like COVID.

Typically, trust is built up very gradually, or slowly eroded over time. Many people are familiar with tracking studies that measure incremental movements in the level of trust among different institutions. These polls told us the story of declining trust in institutions like the church or the news media, over a period of many years and many news cycles.

So, when we talk about COVID as a once-in-a-generation event, that is true of its impact on public opinion too. In a new poll conducted by Discover, the fully integrated research offering from our firm Navigator, the meteoric impact of the pandemic on trust levels is crystal clear.

Anecdotally, we all knew this would be the rare event that breaks through in a fundamental sense. It is already uncommon to have a universal event that affects every single one of us. Many commentators, myself included, have been closely following the ups and downs of daily political polling, because during such times, the fluctuations can be dramatic. But what this new poll shows us is that COVID has prompted a deeper, tectonic shift in terms of who we trust. That shift will have profound consequences.

Between April 30 and May 4, Discover polled 1,500 Canadians, asking them whether they have gained or lost trust in their political leaders and in a range of institutions over the course of the pandemic. Using these results, they calculated a pandemic trust progression score for each leader, derived by taking the percentage of Canadians who had gained trust in them, minus the percentage who had lost trust.

By this measure, most elected leaders should be concerned. The prime minister himself is underwater by 25 points, with 44 per cent of respondents saying they trust Trudeau less now compared to the start of the pandemic. More than half of Albertans say they trust Premier Jason Kenney less today, giving him a score of -41. A majority of Ontarians felt the same way about Premier Doug Ford, giving him a score of -31.

Among the fold, there is one premier who has defied the trend of collapsing trust, and that is Premier Legault in Quebec. Some 43 per cent of Quebecers now trust their premier more, which is reflected in his overall high approval ratings.

But even as most premiers lost trust, other public institutions picked up the slack: small- and medium-sized businesses gained 22 points on the trust progression score. The scientific community was one of the biggest beneficiaries, including a 17-point jump among Conservative Party supporters. It may come as no surprise that people trust big business less, but at the same time, Canadians also trust their employers more today than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

It remains to be seen how these deep changes in trust will translate into votes. Could it be that the new-found trust among Conservatives for scientists might translate, eventually, into more support for action on climate change? Does the collapse in trust for big business among Liberals push the party into traditional NDP policy territory? The long-term consequences are impossible to predict, but fascinating to contemplate. What is clear is that in the aftermath of COVID-19, our politics will never be the same again.

Biden has taken up the challenge of his office and its history, proving Trump’s impact to be impermanent after all

For those on Twitter or otherwise tuned into the political world’s 24-hour spin cycle, the past 100 days have been marked by an unusual phenomenon: the casual hum of political discourse in the absence of Donald J. Trump.

On the streets and in the news, Trump’s legacy marches on through COVID denial, hysteria about the “BIG LIE” of election fraud and the steady purging from the Republican Party of common sense and dissenting opinions.

But the troller-in-chief himself has been notably absent from the airwaves, providing nary a peep on social media. He’s barely engaging in interviews, or even appearing in public for that matter.

Of course, Trump’s quiet is due in part to his exile from the platforms he once held dear, but it is also a sign that his grip on American life is fading — that most Americans have tuned out his vision of the world.

Astonishingly, it may turn out that after all the insanity of the last four years, the damage and the impact of Trump may prove to have been all sound and fury. That the impact may be as ephemeral as the man is bellicose. With a legacy as enduring as a Popsicle in the summer sun, save for the wretched cultural division it has created.

For the past four years, many people — myself among them — have despaired at the damage Trump inflicted on the stature and legacy of the American presidency. He eschewed norms, abandoned allies and at times transformed the pageantry of the office into a pantomime or worse, an infomercial.

“How,” I wondered “will his successor ever achieve any measure of greatness with an office so diminished in stature both in the nation and the world?”

For that reason, many expected that any president who followed one as disruptive as President Trump would need to be a transitional president. One who would give the country time to catch its breath and to throw off the chaos of the previous four years.

After the Watergate scandal, for example, left the presidency in tatters, it took the presidencies of both Ford and Carter before Americans were ready for another transformative president — Ronald Reagan

Now, just over 100 days since Trump left office, President Biden has determined to avoid the same fate. Far from proving Trump’s erosion of the office irreparable, Biden has shown himself capable of being so much more than simply an interim president.

In fact, he has chosen the opposite playbook. Biden has surprised many by enthusiastically and unapologetically taking up the mantle of his party. He has paid a homage to its history by expanding the American social safety net in ways unprecedented since the mid-20th century. With a sure-footedness that belies his status as a rookie president, Biden is moving, leaps and bounds, to transform the role of the state in American life. If he succeeds, his legacy will be paralleled only by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

What’s more, Biden’s undertaking is about much more than an injection of spending or increased supports for the middle and working classes. It is a move to reshape the social contract Americans have with one another and their government. And in doing so restore the stature — and power — of the presidency itself.

In his speech to both houses of Congress last month, Biden spoke of his plans as a “once in a generation investment in our families and our children,” acknowledging the position of his undertaking alongside FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Whatever moniker is bestowed on his own administration’s legacy — even if there is none at all — no one can call it an interim presidency.

If he fails to pass the legislation foundational to his vision, Biden will nonetheless have proven that the president can attempt truly transformational change. That the office he holds can still live up to the challenge of its history. In doing so, Biden will help to clear the rubble of his predecessor, further drowning out the sound and fury of a past presidency which stood for little beyond its own grim world view.