Government critics find themselves in a tight spot these days. In a time of crisis, people tend to rally around the flag. Leaders from Denmark to France to Austria have seen their popularity soar. Here in Canada, polls show the public giving high ratings to governments for their handling of the pandemic.
So criticizing them can be tricky. The critics risk being labelled as armchair quarterbacks taking cheap shots at the players in the middle of the game. Who are they to question the wisdom of governments, with all their resources and expertise?
But the critics are playing a vital role. Governments are making life-and-death decisions every day. They will not always get it right. Their actions need more scrutiny than usual, not less.
Governments are assuming much greater authority than in normal times, too. They might easily overstep and trample on liberties or expand into areas where they have no business. Holding them accountable is doubly important in an emergency like this.
The world learned a hard lesson in the dangers of unchecked government right at the start of this outbreak. China’s leaders muzzled those who first raised warnings about the novel coronavirus. Precious weeks were lost as Chinese authorities tried to play down the risks. A disease that might have been contained spread round the world.
Even democratic governments like ours have a tendency to suppress bad news. Under pressure, they go into a defensive huddle, insisting that everything is being done that can possibly be done. Well, is it? We won’t find out unless opposition leaders, journalists and other critics keep probing.
Without these questioning voices, governments of all kinds tend to accrue power. Only last month, the Liberal government in Ottawa tried to ram through legislation that would have allowed it to spend money and raise or lower taxes until the end of next year without the approval of the House of Commons, a measure that went against centuries of parliamentary tradition. An outcry from the opposition forced it to back down.
Of course, the critics sometimes get it wrong. Conservative politicians have been going after Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, for the crime of taking the advice of the World Health Organization about the virus.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer declined under repeated questioning to say he had confidence in her. Dr. Tam doesn’t deserve that kind of shabby treatment.
Health authorities all over the world, the WHO included, have had to change their advice and their projections on the fly to keep up with this new and little-understood virus. Canadian governments have done better than many at reacting.
In general, though, the criticism has been in-bounds. Mr. Scheer told CBC Radio that now is not the time for partisan division or ideological quarrels. But, as he put it, “our government works better when it has robust debate, when it has people holding decision-makers to account.” He is surely right about that.
Even in the depths of the Second World War, British parliamentarians engaged in fierce debates about the government’s conduct. In 1942, after a series of Allied setbacks in North Africa and East Asia, a group of MPs put forward a motion stating “that this House, while paying tribute to the heroism and endurance of the Armed Forces of the Crown in circumstances of exceptional difficulty, has no confidence in the central direction of the war.”
Winston Churchill’s government easily survived the challenge after a blunt and masterly speech by the prime minister. But it deserved the scrutiny. Events had caught the government flat-footed. Churchill conceded that his response had often been marked by “muddle and mismanagement.”
Today’s governments should not be immune to challenge, either. Even in the heat of battle against the virus, there are questions that cry out to be asked. Why have long-term care homes been left so defenceless? Why has it taken so long to ramp up testing?
The critics have a right to demand answers without being denounced for baseless grumbling. Governments need to have sharp eyes on them at all times, now more than ever.