Those who crave efficiency sometimes complain about the cumbersome nature of Canadian federalism, with power divided between a relatively weak central government and strong provinces. Those critics should take note of how well the system is working during the coronavirus emergency.
And the events of recent weeks prove another point: that in times of crisis, systems matter, but leadership matters, too. Witness the difference between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Constitutionally and by convention, provincial governments deliver health care, while Ottawa helps fund it. The federal government also plays a co-ordinating role and sets certain basic standards.
The system can be piecemeal and inefficient. But when a public health emergency strikes, things typically work pretty well. During this coronavirus emergency, British Columbia and Ontario have led the response, because they have had the bulk of the cases. Other provinces have been watching and acting accordingly, depending on their own circumstances.
The private sector has also been listening, with sports and cultural activities curtailed, people encouraged to work from home and travel discouraged.
The federal government monitored the responses and implemented national measures, such as Friday’s decision to delay the cruise ship season and to limit the number of airports that receive international passengers, while advising Canadians to avoid all non-essential international travel.
After the curve finally bends downward on this pandemic, postmortems may conclude that officials waited too long to do this, or should have avoided doing that, but at this point all best efforts appear to be in place to limit the transmission of the disease and prevent a spike in infections that could overwhelm the health-care system. Politicians at all levels have also been effective at educating the public without inciting panic.
There has even been all-party co-operation when it mattered, including Friday’s decision to temporarily suspend Parliament, after first ratifying the new North American free-trade agreement.
The federal system has also responded to the economic crisis resulting from the public health crisis. Finance Minister Bill Morneau released a tranche of stimulus measures Friday, while promising more is to come, even as the Bank of Canada reduced interest rates by another 50 basis points. Down the road, this government should be held to account for accumulating deficits during times of growth. But for now, almost everyone agrees that an economy that is probably headed into recession needs help, along with the workers whose jobs are at risk. Ottawa can, should and will spend whatever it takes, while also transferring money to the provinces to help them with health-care costs and with providing help to those in the greatest need.
But while political systems are important, effective leadership in times of emergency can be even more critical. However lethargic Mr. Trudeau has appeared at times since the October election, the Prime Minister has performed well this week, despite being forced to work from home after his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau tested positive for the virus. Cabinet ministers, especially Health Minister Patty Hajdu, have handled their files well.
Contrast that with Mr. Trump’s efforts to play down the pandemic. In public announcements, the U.S. President seeks only to cast blame on others and to praise himself. By his actions, he has contributed to crucial delays in testing that allowed the virus to spread.
On Friday, Mr. Trump finally declared a national emergency, freeing up relief funding and ramping up testing procedures. But the United States is well behind many other countries, including Canada.
The United States is also a federal system and some of the obstacles to effective action have been systemic. The American preference for more limited government and the inefficiencies of its private-sector health-care delivery have inhibited effective action. On the positive side, state officials have taken steps to limit the spread of the disease.
But the hard fact is that the actions – or the inaction – of Mr. Trump and his administration in past weeks could result in a higher rate of infection in the United States than in Canada. One of the risks to Canadians from COVID-19 could come from people entering Canada from the United States.
It’s an old cliché that the American republic was founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while Canada’s founders preferred peace, order and good government. But at times such as this, the Canadian approach has its appeal.
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