The adolescent brain, so science and exasperated parents tell us, is prone to distraction. It has trouble with impulse control. It doesn’t always have the right priorities, and tends to go for short-term pleasure over long-term gain.
So what’s the Trudeau government’s excuse? It’s been in office for five trips around the sun, which translated from dog years into the chronology of incumbency makes it middle-aged. It should be endowed with the sagacity of experience and the serenity of knowing that, for the foreseeable future, no other party is even thinking about taking it down.
The government has the freedom to govern, and knows it.
And what Canada desperately needs, in the midst of COVID-19′s second wave, is competent, undistracted government. And the top issue Canadian governments need to focus on, obsessively, is the pandemic.
So why did this week on Parliament Hill suddenly turn into a game of confidence-motion chicken? We checked the calendar: There was an election less than a year ago, and a Throne Speech a month ago. The Trudeau government has the confidence of the House of Commons.
Whether it should have the confidence of Canadians is another story. Canada’s pandemic record is less than stellar: nearly 10,000 deaths, hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity lost, hundreds of billions of dollars of government deficits acquired, and hundreds of thousands of jobs still missing. The economic rebound of the summer has been detoured by this month’s surge in cases.
Things are better than in the United States, but that is small comfort. (And in Quebec, the pandemic death rate is still higher than the U.S.) Things are nowhere near as under control as they should be, given how much time Canada had to prepare for the second wave, and how much was known about what preparations were needed.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, and not all of it lands in Ottawa. The provinces are, after all, largely responsible for health and public health. That includes running most of the country’s testing and contact tracing.
The catastrophic inadequacy of those two items, across the country, has been this fall’s epic failure. And it’s precisely where Ottawa and the provinces needed to co-operate.
Back in the spring, Canada did not have enough testing to quickly find out who had the virus, or enough contact tracers to quickly track down their close contacts. For want of surgical instruments, the country fought a pandemic by isolating everyone from everyone, putting the economy into a coma.
The lesson was that Canada had to use the summer lull to prepare for a second wave, by acquiring a lot more of those surgical instruments. More testing and contact tracing doesn’t eliminate the need for physical distancing or targeted business closings, but it offers the possibility of reducing their use, and reducing their economic costs. Every dollar spent on testing and contact tracing offers the hope of keeping many more dollars of economic activity going, safely.
But the summer was squandered. The price is today being paid in a surge of new cases that Canada has been unable to find and track, and unable to contain without new shutdowns.
This is where the WE Charity affair, the subject of this week’s game of Parliamentary chicken, connects back to the pandemic. The Trudeau government’s plan was to entrust WE with nearly $1-billion to create student make-work projects, paying tens of thousands of idle students to do some volunteering.
What if those tens of thousands of students – young, energetic, tech-savvy – had instead been offered positions in a national contact-tracing corps? They could have been given jobs solving the biggest challenge of 2020. Imagine if provinces and local health authorities – Toronto weeks ago suspended most contact tracing, its small team of tracers overwhelmed by cases – had the resources to tackle the threat.
The Trudeau government deserves credit for rolling out tens of billions of dollars of spending to support jobless Canadians and shuttered businesses. But it deserves criticism for spending relatively little money, and devoting relatively little attention, to the challenge of beating back the pandemic in ways that don’t create such a long list of desperate businesses and unemployed workers.
The distraction of a possible election removed, perhaps Ottawa could turn its attention back to more urgent matters.
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