November 25th, 2020

National Affairs: Premiers accountable to voters, not PM

By Medicine Hat News Opinion on November 18, 2020.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise across much of the country, pressure is once again on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to use the Emergencies Act to take full control of the management of the pandemic.

But is the option really the silver bullet some of its proponents believe it is? Here are three reasons why the notion of the federal government overriding the provinces to impose a made-in-Ottawa unified approach to the pandemic remains little more than a bad good idea:

1. As alluring as the prospect may seem in theory, in practice there is no one-size-fits-all national strategy liable to yield more efficient results than the current patchwork of provincial approaches.

Take Atlantic Canada. The region has largely succeeded in keeping the second wave at bay, essentially by isolating itself in a bubble. Until further notice, it has little need for the restrictions that proponents of the Emergencies Act would have the federal government impose.

But in spite of its success, the Atlantic Canada approach is not one that could be replicated easily – if at all – in the rest of the country. There are wide demographic and economic variations between Canada’s regions and those variations invariably come into play in the management of the pandemic.

Even within a given province, uniformity is not a feature of the second COVID-19 wave. Some regions are doing better than others.

In Quebec, Montreal – the epicentre of the first COVID-19 wave – has lost that title to other regions of the province this fall.

In Ontario, the curve is anything but flattening in Peel Region and Toronto, but Ottawa seems to have had some success in bringing community transmission under relative control.

Looking down the road to the upcoming holiday season, one of the biggest fears of all governments is that the indoor celebrations that attend the festivities will act like an accelerant on the pandemic fire.

Those fears are legitimate. But given that most gatherings will take place within private settings, it is hard to see how an Ottawa-imposed national lockdown would do much to alleviate them.

And then, it is not as if the federal government has been so efficient at taking care of its own pandemic-related knitting that Canadians would be in immensely better hands if only it took over the knitting of the provinces.

To put it mildly, these days Trudeau has his hands full with co-ordinating the distribution of rapid COVID-19 tests, planning the eventual distribution of a vaccine and tweaking federal income support policies to adjust to the changing economic realities of this crisis.

2. The willingness of governments of different political stripes to join forces to fend off the first COVID-19 wave has been a major asset in the Canadian pandemic battle. It should not be squandered lightly.

As the second wave gains ominous strength, the last thing the country needs is an acrimonious federal-provincial battle that stands to offer the victor little more than an empty victory on the pandemic.

This week, Premier Doug Ford was particularly vocal in opposition to the suggestion that Trudeau should use his emergency powers to impose a line of conduct on the provinces. But in this, it is the prime minister and not the Ontario premier who is isolated.

The Emergencies Act compels the government of the day to consult the premiers and to bring Parliament into the loop. It is far from certain that Trudeau – were he to invoke the act – could obtain the blessing of the opposition majority in the House of Commons.

The Bloc Quebecois and the Conservatives would almost certainly align with their provincial allies. When the issue of the Emergencies Act first came up last spring, British Columbia Premier John Horgan was adamantly against its use. On that basis, it is not a given that the NDP would break from its provincial ally to support Trudeau.

3. With a look to public opinion, the argument that Trudeau’s voice would carry more weight in places like Quebec, Ontario or B.C. among others than that of those provinces’ premiers fails the test of reality.

Polls consistently show that voters are overwhelmingly on side with tough measures – including lockdowns and curfews, if need be – to contain the second wave of the pandemic.

The sliding popularity of Alberta’s Jason Kenney suggest it is a trend the premiers ignore at their own peril. His government has been more reluctant than the provincial average to shut down part of the economy to flatten the COVID-19 curve. In the process, according to the latest Leger sounding, Kenney has earned the disapproval of a majority of his constituents.

When it comes to exacting provincial compliance with tougher measures to contain COVID-19, voters yield a bigger stick than the prime minister.

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