We live in an age of instant analysis. When sports stars switch teams, commentators rush to grade the trade. When a politician makes a speech, pollsters scramble to gauge the impact on voters.
We all know this is a bit silly. Check back after next year’s Super Bowl to know whether Tom Brady joining the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers is worth the "A" grade ESPN’s football analyst bestowed on Tuesday.
Does it really matter if 49 per cent of Canadians told callers from the Angus Reid Institute last week they think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his colleagues are doing a good job dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak? The real test for governments of all stripes is how our citizens – particularly our most vulnerable – and our businesses and institutions fare in the weeks and months to come.
In other words, it’s all about execution.
The real challenge isn’t the Prime Minister’s ability to announce $82-billion in neatly targeted programs, which he did Wednesday. The test is whether civil servants and other front-line workers can actually deliver on government promises while staying healthy.
If you’re optimistic, this crisis allows Finance Minister Bill Morneau to channel his inner C.D. Howe, and marshal industry and logistics in the same masterful manner his Liberal predecessor did during the Second World War. As Mr. Trudeau said on Wednesday, the Canadian economy is fundamentally strong, and government has the capacity and resources to act.
If you’re a pessimist, you look at the continuing fiasco of the Phoenix pay system (government employees have spent years worrying that money won’t show up in their bank accounts) and the Liberals’ inability to deliver on lofty election promises. There are elements of the federal government’s track record that justify fears COVID-19 will wreak social and economic havoc.
The Prime Minister and Mr. Morneau know they’re making career-defining decisions as they respond to this pandemic. To date, they’re getting things right. Without dwelling on personalities, compare Mr. Trudeau’s news conferences – including the somehow endearing image of the Prime Minister ducking back into his home to grab a coat on Wednesday after misjudging the temperature on a clear but brisk Ottawa morning – with what plays out when the U.S. President gets in front of the cameras.
Canadian governments of all stripes have won praise for mostly hitting the right notes, including launching a series of programs meant to get money into the hands of those who need it most, such as hourly workers who lack benefits and small businesses that have seen sales dry up.
“There is no doubt that covering cash needs for people who may be unable to work or sent home without benefits or who lose their jobs is where public policy has a role to play during this shock,” said Derek Holt, head of capital markets economics at Bank of Nova Scotia. For an economist, that’s the equivalent of giving the Brady signing an “A" rating.
As the federal Liberals and provincial governments roll out responses to the pandemic, it’s clear they’re piggy-backing on existing programs, where possible – a nod to lessening the load on civil servants. For example, part of the $82-billion in new programs announced Wednesday will see cash delivered to individuals by simply boosting the size of GST credits and the Canada Child Benefit. There’s a note of realism in that approach, in sticking with programs already in place, rather than reaching for a shiny but unproven new policy.
Finally, in slapping "A" or "F" grades on Canadian politicians, it’s important to keep in mind that a country that accounts for just 3 per cent of the global economy can only do so much in the face of a pandemic that knows no borders. With an eye toward plunging stock markets and international issues such as border regulation, Scotiabank’s Mr. Holt said: “We need to be fair toward the capacity of Canadian institutions to lean against the complex forces sweeping through world markets.”
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