Last week, former Reform Party leader Preston Manning delivered what Danielle Smith wanted.
The Alberta Premier has long spoken for the people who opted not to immunize themselves against COVID-19 and couldn’t work, travel or see loved ones during the pandemic. And at the heart of Mr. Manning’s sprawling report on governance lessons from the public health emergency is her years-long pushback against the mainstream media, cancel culture and traditional Canadian deference to authority.
The report also opens the door to a spate of legal challenges to political leaders who may be forced to grapple with future pandemics – or even natural disasters or insurrections.
As critics have noted, the 116-page Manning review panel spends a lot of time on the harms of closures and restrictions, with little contemplation of the pain and death that was averted by public health measures.
But in the spirit of the conservative elder stateman calling for “constructive and democratic” discourse in looking back at pandemic emergency measures – in a way that no other province has done – there are also nuggets of what could be done better.
For one, the panel’s idea that Alberta disallow the permanent dismissals of “non-compliant employees” during a temporary public emergency is a good one. People did lose jobs during the pandemic for not being vaccinated, and it was ugly. The recommendation to provide for extended but temporary leaves of absence in similar circumstances is solid.
As the report itself acknowledges, this isn’t meant to lambaste governments for not thinking of everything in the fast-moving war against COVID-19, in months when bad policy ideas became good ideas before becoming bad again. It was during the dark days of August and September, 2021, that Alberta business leaders and mayors were clamouring for a vaccine passport system, which the Kenney government resisted – until the province’s health-care system was days away from collapse. Then, by February, 2022, the government just as quickly cancelled the passport system.
There’s also no doubt that Mr. Manning’s report speaks honestly about “growing public skepticism, reinforced by the COVID-19 experience” and the increasing rejection of the idea “the government acts in good faith, in accordance with the constitution and in the public interest.”
But one of the report’s key solutions for future emergencies – the shape of which we of course do not know – will likely only add to the skepticism and chaos.
The panel recommends a major shift in thinking “to a presumption that no infringement of constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms, during a declared state of public emergency, is to be regarded as justifiable and reasonable until first proven to be so in a court of law.”
Eric Adams, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Alberta, views this as a grave mistake. “You’re effectively saying there will be no emergency measures,” he said, because there is always going to be someone who will object.
This worldview is already common south of the border. The Washington Post has reported at least 30 states have passed laws since 2020 that limit public health authority, and litigation has further weakened public officials’ ability to protect lives in a crisis.
There are other issues with the panel’s report, too. The Alberta NDP is rightly concerned about language that asks governments to consider “non-scientific evidence” in a public health emergency. Does that mean serious consideration of the unproven or alternative medical treatments that the Premier has previously said she was a fan of?
While the report is focused on Alberta, there’s a problem in treating the export-focused province as an island in what was a global response to COVID-19. It emphasizes the economic contraction as a result of “lockdowns” within the province, rather than the greater havoc caused by the precipitous global oil-price drop of early 2020.
The report also speaks to school closures, and the adverse impact they had on children’s learning and mental health, asking for legal language that forbids closing physical access to schools in all but the most exceptional circumstances. But countries around the world apparently believed we were in such circumstances these pandemic years, as schools around the globe were closed for varying lengths.
In 2021, before Ms. Smith was Premier, she departed her job as a Corus radio host and commentator, saying political correctness had run amok. She had spent her entire career questioning authority, institutions and conventional wisdom, she said, and there would be “a great reckoning” as political discourse swung back to some balance that allowed for greater free speech.
It’s still unclear which recommendations her UCP government will accept from the Manning report. But we do know the process is all a part of the reckoning Ms. Smith has long promised.