COVID-19 political bump has bounced Liberals back into majority government territory

, , Comments Off on COVID-19 political bump has bounced Liberals back into majority government territory

But the full return of Parliament will also focus more attention on Liberal mistakes, as the opposition parties will do their best to change the channel away from COVID solidarity.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 6, 2020.

OTTAWA—The COVID-19 political bump has bounced the Liberals back into majority government territory.

That is quite a comeback from a time when the party literally limped into power following a gaffe-filled election campaign last fall.

The prime minister and all provincial premiers appear to be benefiting from a rise in public support attributed to their handling of the pandemic.

Daily communications have softened and strengthened images of each leader. That may seem like an anachronism, but most Canadians expect their leaders to be strong and approachable.

Leaders have also benefited from the absence of pandemic critics.

In a world outbreak, people expect political parties to work together, so it is very difficult to attack the life-saving measures being taken across the board.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who was out early and often in heated attacks at the beginning of the lockdown, suffered criticism from within his own party for missing the mark.

The country expects leaders to work together in time of crisis, and they have been doing so.

For a brief period, even Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has set aside his Ottawa-bashing in an attempt to find common ground.

But the danger of this bump is that it is directly linked to a sense of danger.

If Canadians believe the third phase of COVID containment is going well, they will focus on issues other than the country’s stand in the fight against the coronavirus.

News reports say there are several vaccines which will be undergoing massive human test trials starting at the end of this month.

If any are successful, the path to a vaccination may be marked by months, not years.

The Canadian government has already stockpiled enough syringes to vaccinate the whole population. That could mean an end to the social distancing and bubble-making that have become a way of life for all of us.

Canada Day in the nation’s capital was a shadow of its usual self.

Virtual fireworks and concerts just don’t cut it.

So, a vaccine would liberate us from the spell that the lockdown has cast over the whole country.

But that also brings its own political risks.

With no national danger in sight, political leaders in regions across the country will fall into their old habits of blaming other provinces or the federal government for their challenges.

Kenney dropped the corporate tax rate last week because he said he wanted to make Alberta stand out as a magnet for business.

The financial markets responded to the stimulus plan, which included $10-billion in infrastructure spending this fiscal year, by cutting the province’s credit rating.

American-based Fitch announced a downgrade from Double A to Double A minus, citing the province’s heavy borrowing to fight the economic crisis.

Alberta is also facing the ongoing, worldwide crash in oil prices, which has been exacerbated by the COVID economic slowdown.

An international move away from fossil fuels is not likely to change anytime soon so Alberta will be facing continuing jobs pressure.

And with the safety of a vaccine, the spectre of COVID prompting interprovincial cooperation will dissipate quickly.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also faces the challenge of election timing.

The current numbers point to an early vote, but if the government moves too quickly, it will likely be accused of opportunism, sacrificing any residual goodwill from the crisis.

The full return of Parliament will also focus more attention on Liberal mistakes, as the opposition parties will do their best to change the channel away from COVID solidarity.

Racial and Indigenous inequities, post-COVID changes to the health-care system, and economic recovery will dominate the parliamentary agenda.

There will be criticism of government deficits, given the unprecedented payouts to millions of Canadians who were affected financially by the pandemic.

Canadians will also expect government action on migrant workers’ abhorrent conditions, and the patchwork of regulations governing long-term care facilities across the country.

There is plenty of fodder for parliamentary debate that will quickly overshadow the question of pandemic management.

If the economy rebounds well, the government will be rewarded in the next election.

Canada has been relatively successful in navigating the crisis, largely because governments spoke with a single voice, and citizens were vigilant in following instruction on lockdowns, distancing, masking and bubbles.

Canadians have not been subject to the same mess of mixed messaging and anti-mask libertarianism that has afflicted the United States.

And our return to normalcy will be more secure because of our sacrifices.

Thankfully the worst Canada Day in history is behind us.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.