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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

This week has been a test for the leader of any country. But the fast and deadly rise in novel coronavirus infections across the West has shone a particularly harsh light on leaders of federal countries – those where important tools are in the hands of provinces or states.

To keep the surge from becoming uncontrollable, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needed to act fast, make unpopular and painful moves, use his limited powers (and his less-limited coffers) to overcome the resistance of laggard provinces, and make a persuasive case to Canadians for the weeks of lost freedoms they’re about to endure.

For the most part, he didn’t. Perhaps because a season of political scandals has led him to retreat from the front lines, Mr. Trudeau steered away from direct, decisive action or messages this week, leaving Canadians to muddle through a confusing hodgepodge of provincial responses and vague requests. Places that have done well, such as the four Atlantic provinces, are now at risk of infection from those that have been lax and careless, such as Quebec, Ontario and Alberta – and there’s no consistent federal message.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, faced a similar test this week. The second wave of the pandemic blew up so fast that it completely overwhelmed the contact-tracing bureaucracies that have been her country’s first line of defence. Ms. Merkel needed to act very fast – but, as in Canada, Germany’s 16 states hold authority over most things relevant to pandemic control. And many of those states are run by her political rivals.

Twice this year, Ms. Merkel has managed to win their consensus by going on TV and appealing directly to the people, forging difficult compromises in all-night negotiations and using federal powers to sweeten the deal. Last weekend, she needed to do it again, but much faster.

On Sunday night, her office sent the draft of an emergency pandemic-control bill to the 16 premiers. It came back with important measures deleted – such as a requirement that children wear masks at their desks in school. The bill eventually passed this week, but it was viewed by experts as inadequate, with crucial measures postponed.

A larger failure is in Switzerland’s highly decentralized federalism. The low infection rates across its 26 cantons was previously praised as a model of success. Then, this month, cases suddenly soared – concentrated at first in German-speaking cantons such as Bern, where there have been few changes in daily life. By the time the national government recognized the threat, it was too late, and now, all of Switzerland is a hot zone.

Even Australia – where rates have heretofore been vanishingly low due to well-enforced internal travel restrictions – fell into a minor crisis of federalism this week. Prime Minister Scott Morrison wanted to open things up for Christmas, but a virulent flash outbreak in the state of South Australia led its premier to impose a new “circuit breaker” lockdown, prompting premiers of adjoining states to ban interstate travel and confounding the PM’s plans.

It’s not as if federal countries are the only ones faring poorly, but federal leaders face special challenges. They do not generally have departments and bureaucracies in health, education or business regulation that can respond instantly. They can’t shut down bars and gyms, make schools stay open late and send police to enforce travel quarantines. They have to rely on the powers of leadership: persuasion, negotiation and a direct line to the people of the country.

In July, a study of federal countries in the American Review of Public Administration found that Canada, Germany and Australia had “done well,” with quick COVID-19 responses and relatively uniform policies across the country. But it warned that a loss of uniformity could jeopardize those responses: “Pandemics and people cross regional borders, and controlling contagion requires a great deal of national coordination and intergovernmental cooperation.”

In recent months, some of that cooperation has drifted into dissonance.

One lax state or province can mess up an entire country, unless the national leader has the fortitude to impose a ban on domestic travel. That’s the lesson of the United States. Some of its better-run states, such as California, had superb pandemic-control plans. But the total lack of leadership at the federal level meant incompetently run states such as South Dakota became nationwide super-spreaders that overwhelmed others’ defences.

Canada has yet to absorb that lesson fully. Its southern border remains wisely closed, but its incoherent provincial voices need to come together in a unified message – fast. As one group of medical experts concluded in a paper for the Journal of the American Medical Association: “A global pandemic has no respect for geographic boundaries, laying bare the weaknesses of federalism in the face of a crisis.”

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