At some point in the future, after Canada has wrestled the novel coronavirus to the ground, and life and the economy have returned to normal, there will be questions to answer about how well Ottawa handled the crisis.
Public health questions like: Should the border have been closed sooner? Why were federal stockpiles of personal protection equipment allowed to dwindle to nothing? Did the Public Health Agency of Canada have the resources and money it needed?
There will also be economic questions about all the new stimulus and support programs Ottawa is rolling out daily, and a deficit expected to top $250-billion this year. Was the money properly targeted? Did it achieve its goals? Was it enough? Was it too much?
These issues will no doubt be addressed in public inquiries, and studied by economists and public health experts for years to come. But there is one other thing that will be asked in the future: How did our democracy do?
Parliament is not itself these days. In order (ostensibly) to respect physical-distancing rules, the House of Commons has been adjourned and replaced by a small whole-of-government committee on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The members of the committee meet twice a week via videoconferencing, and once a week in person. At least two hours of each meeting are given over to questions to ministers, which may leave some Canadians with the impression that Parliament is sitting and Question Period is still happening. Not exactly.
The moment is further complicated by the fact the Conservative Party is in limbo after the resignation of Leader Andrew Scheer. Convention prevents Mr. Scheer from setting a direction for the party while he is a lame duck. But the vote to choose his replacement has been postponed until August, leaving the official opposition somewhat adrift.
Not that the Conservatives have been entirely ineffective. They did their job well the two times the government briefly recalled Parliament to pass legislation on emergency financial measures, working with the other opposition parties to improve the offerings from the Trudeau cabinet.
But there is more the Conservatives could be doing to hold Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s minority government to account. Unless they have nothing better to offer, the government-in-waiting – that’s what an official opposition is – should be proposing its own response to the crisis.
That’s mostly not happening. Instead, a minority government is setting the agenda via daily press conference. There is little consistent pushback or contribution from the opposition, despite the opposition holding the majority of the seats in Parliament.
Then again, there are no regular Parliamentary sittings, and no regular Question Periods. The government is taking advantage of that, but the opposition is allowing them to.
There almost seems to be an unspoken agreement among the opposition parties to allow the minority government to govern as if it had a majority, as long as there is progress in the battle. Fair enough. But it doesn’t mean that sidelining Parliament was the best option.
As we’ve noted before, even while London was being bombed in 1940, the British Parliament kept calm and carried on. It wasn’t government by press conference. It’s a reminder that there are alternatives to the one Ottawa chose.
For instance, instead of reducing Parliament to a small committee on the pandemic, the Liberals might have reacted more in keeping with the scale of the crisis and created an all-party “war” cabinet. Britain did likewise 80 years ago.
That might be difficult in today’s Ottawa; it’s hard to imagine Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer on the same team. But if it could be made to work, it would be a fair trade-off, given that Canadians are not being meaningfully represented in the House of Commons right now.
Or the Liberals and the opposition could agree to keep Parliament sitting, virtually and in person. Is there even a date for Parliament’s return? And can we agree that, in the current situation, Parliament cannot adjourn all summer?
As with so much else in this fast-moving crisis, the tendency is to avoid criticism and settle for assuming that our democracy must be doing as well as possible, under the circumstances. Looking back in a few years, Canadians may realize they should have expected, and been given, more.