It’s been fascinating to watch political parties attempting to manoeuvre for advantage during a pandemic unlike anything we’ve experienced in a century. In a heightened political season, given what’s going on south of the border, Canada’s political parties have remained relatively restrained when it comes to crass politics. Today, the emphasis is placed on the practical needs of Canadians during COVID, and veering too far from that responsibility courts public condemnation.
Yet the politically ambitious are chafing, weary of towing the line of collaboration for the sake of public health and safety. The Trump administration never bought into that narrative, but it largely prevailed everywhere else, including Canada. It’s an easy thing to criticize and rant against governments not doing enough regarding this health crisis, but it’s clear that it can be a dangerous temptation.
The findings of Ontario’s Auditor General yesterday, revealing that much of the province’s COVID recovery was guided more by the government than health authorities, is already rubbing citizens the wrong way. The reason: it speaks more of a political agenda than a public policy.
Boris Johnson’s recent actions, as British Prime Minister, have left the world with the impression that important issues like the pandemic, the European Union, or Brexit are merely tools to be manipulated to gain the Conservatives an advantage. The result? His poll numbers have plummeted to record low levels. He played with the public good and got burned.
Canadians are not yet in a partisan mood, despite numerous efforts to fan the flames. In our most profound crisis, Canadians have opted for collective health security instead of political manipulation. Trust in government is high right now. The trouble is that, if you’re in opposition, that’s just not suitable. And if you’re in government, the temptation is great to cement your power.
When Abraham Lincoln opted to make the abolition of slavery a chief preoccupation, he understood two things: it was a just cause, and the majority of Americans were needed to help make it a reality. So he wrote in clear terms: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities.”
In other words, government matters. And, having spent decades reducing governments in their capacities, there remains this unspoken realization that we went too far in that attrition, and, that in limiting government capacity, we undermined our own. COVID is still in the process of teaching us that reality, and we aren’t yet ready to abandon that new awareness.
This pandemic is challenging our politics, at all levels, to stop messing around with the public good, as if it’s a kind of nefarious nuisance blocking the pursuit of power. Canadians still trust institutions more than most, and we just aren’t of the mind to rip their presently required hegemony into partisan pieces.
Government doesn’t exist to divide us across natural lines – we do a good enough job of that on our own. Its task is to fight against that inclination, presenting a larger alternative that can only be possible through collective effort. We aren’t going to get more affordable housing, a significant reduction in poverty levels, or even an effective approach to the harming of this planet, without principled government. Nor will there be a post-COVID period of security and prosperity if we break apart as Canadians in pursuit of some kind of political Golden Fleece. Our best chance is together, and our best way to achieve what we seek is through a shared democracy of public good.
We have been humbled as a country. For all our natural advantages, material prosperity, and peaceable nature, we almost became undone by a virus that can only be seen under a microscope. The irony of this moment can’t be lost on us: the invisible came dangerously close to wiping out all those visible realities we hold so dear.
We are reliving the dangers of our ancestors – two world wars, the 1919 flu pandemic, the Depression – but we are neither as institutional nor as unified in purpose as they were. This is now our chapter in that long narrative of Canadian history. Now it is our time to face the great challenges to humanity. So far, we have found not only consolation but a deeper sense of human value in these past months. We now require a politics capable of building on that shared purpose instead of sacrificing it for the sake of power.