Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre and the former leader of the Reform Party of Canada.
Why does our national game of hockey have three periods instead of two halves? So that there would be a middle! Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the median!
These old jokes about us Canadians ring true because of our penchant for finding compromise and balance. But lately, the middle ground seems to have evaporated. Polarization and division – some of it absorbed from the political wars in the United States, and much of it fed by identity politics – is the order of the day. And leaders with the capacity to define and champion a principled middle ground are few and far between.
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Where – on what issues – is finding a balance between polarized extremes most urgently needed? Is it not in our response to the COVID-19 challenge?
COVID-19 threatens our health. Governments of all stripes have, therefore, understandably and hastily, adopted protective measures based largely on the advice of a select group of health experts. To be clear, this is all well and good.
But in seeking and applying scientific advice on how to cope with COVID-19, the balance between the advice of medical science and the advice of other branches of science with equally important contributions to make has been lost.
Why have we not given at least some weight to the cautionary warnings of social scientists and psychologists that strict and prolonged “social distancing” can have major negative effects on mental health? The price of this imbalance in our application of scientific advice has been tragically high – deaths from suicides and drug overdosing in some Canadian communities, attributable to prolonged social isolation, greatly outnumbering deaths from the coronavirus.
In the name of combatting COVID-19, almost all of the rights and freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and the Charter have been circumscribed and even violated. Freedom of assembly and association has been seriously curtailed even for gatherings where health protection measures are rigorously practised; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression have been attacked, especially when those thoughts, beliefs and opinions differ from the official line of the state.
Meanwhile, the Constitution Act, 1982, guarantees the rights of every citizen and permanent resident of Canada “to pursue the gaining of a livelihood,” which includes the right to work and conduct a business. Yet government policies that require millions of Canadians to “stay home and be safe,” that keep millions of workers from their jobs and the incomes those jobs provide, that drive thousands of businesses to the brink of bankruptcy and beyond, that threaten supply chains, and which indefinitely “lock down” whole sectors of the national economy – all constitute violations of this basic right of Canadians to gain a livelihood.
Every day, our governments present Canadians with evidence of the health consequences of the coronavirus and the results of measures adopted to combat it. But evidence as to the financial and economic effects of these measures – which will affect the overall well-being of millions of Canadians for years to come – has not been presented with anywhere near the same transparency or vigour.
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Is it not essential to find a just balance between the protection of Canadians’ health and the protection of their Charter rights and their economic well-being?
Lastly, public support is essential for the implementation of any policies required to cope effectively with the COVID-19 challenge. The easiest and most expedient way of securing and sustaining that support, as our politicians and their advisers well know, is to frighten the populace into compliance by exploiting their fears of the consequences if those policies are not accepted and followed.
There is, however, another way to secure public support for a public policy. It is more difficult and time-consuming than exploiting their fears, but it is also more compatible with the governance of a free and democratic society: providing the public with complete and well-balanced information that challenges and enables free people to make informed decisions in their own interests.
This involves what Thomas Jefferson called “informing the discretion” of a free people in a democracy, and warning them – as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the dark days of Second World War – that what they have most to fear in the face of catastrophe is not the catastrophe but fear itself.
Where is the balance between securing public support for policies to cope with the COVID-19 crisis by openly and dispassionately informing our discretion as distinct from simply exploiting our fears? And who in our current political arena will provide and champion that balanced approach? These are questions to ponder and answer as we enter 2021.
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