Once vaccines get rolling, that’s the moment to trigger an election

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Voters are always happier in the spring and the economic fallout won’t yet be felt.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 8, 2021.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has to keep saying that he does not want an election. Forcing the country into a vote in the middle of a pandemic may be seen as an impolitic move.

However, the three provinces that have gone to the polls during this pandemic have all been rewarded with majority governments.

So those who say the calling of a COVID election would cost votes are wrong. Sure, there would be a couple of days of grumbling at the beginning of the campaign. But very quickly, pundits and politicians would start debating the big issues facing Canadians at the moment.

Economic and health uncertainty are the obvious themes that need to be addressed.

Thus far, these are both issues where the opposition parties have not been able to secure much traction.

The Conservatives have been hitting hard at pandemic mismanagement. With Pfizer delaying their promised deliveries, and provinces adding their criticism to the rollout, the government has suffered some political damage. However, that will be forgotten as soon as the rollout returns at the end of February.

These hiccups are happening around the world, and Canadians are not alone in the challenge of securing and delivering vaccines to needy citizens.

But most Canadians will not hold that against the government once the election is called. Instead, they may attack the opposition for being offside in a world pandemic situation.

Last week Green Party Leader Annamie Paul tried to carve out her own COVID space, accusing the government of being a bad global citizen because it tapped into a previously contracted number of vaccines from Covax. Paul said the Canadian government should not have access to a vaccine that was developed primarily to assist poorer countries.

But the Green Party leader won’t get much support on that one. If she had read the fine print of the Canadian Covax funding announcement last fall, she would know that one-half of the $440-million invested in the Covax vaccine was intended for Canadian vaccine use.

And when Canadian lives are at risk, it seems strange for a Canadian politician to deny the vaccine to her own country.

Similar criticism was reflected in some international media reports, which accused Canada of being greedy as one of the few developed countries tapping into the Covax vaccine.

While the world needs a global strategy, all politics is still local. And Paul will not get a lot of support for attacking the Liberals’ desire to protect Canadians.

The government is also facing a long-term economic meltdown as province by province, businesses are forced to shutter, and citizens are required to stay home in lockdown.

Liberals delivered a death blow to the airline industry by asking them to shut down flights to the Caribbean and Mexico in a popular, but misguided effort to stop the spread of the virus.

By all accounts, air travel was responsible for little more than one per cent of the COVID transmission, but that did not stop the government from introducing a punitive hotel quarantine for any citizen returning from abroad after next week. This requirement has zero pandemic value, as it supplements a COVID PCR test before anyone gets on a plane and after they get off. It also requires those who have been vaccinated to quarantine.

And even though the viral mutations came from the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa, none of these destinations have been shut down.

The move was largely intended to keep people from travelling during spring break and it worked. But the airlines have also laid off thousands and Air Canada shut down Rouge last week. Professor Fred Lazar, of the Schulich School of Business at York University, said travel is being unfairly targeted in the pandemic fight. “They are doing it to cater to the vast majority of Canadians that have a holier than thou attitude toward travel.” Full disclosure, I am one of those shameful snowbirds who left Canada for southern climes, despite the best advice of my government.

But even if the move did not make health sense, it was very popular, and managed to distract attention from vaccine rollout problems.

Some Canadian routes, cancelled during COVID, will never return, exacerbating regional isolation.

Meanwhile, once the vaccine gets rolling, there will be a collective sigh of relief. That is the moment to trigger an election. Voters are always happier in the spring and the economic fallout won’t yet be felt.

Most Canadians will reward the Liberals for taming the COVID beast.

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