“Enough is enough,” Justin Trudeau said to Canadians flouting self-isolation guidelines. “Go home and stay home.”
That wasn’t all. He once again raised the prospect that if people don’t listen, the government can and will step in with tough measures to enforce the social-distancing rules. It doesn’t want to, but …
Any parent will recognize this tone: Don’t make me come down there.
And that’s not a criticism: It’s just a fact that the Prime Minister’s job right now is in large part done through the bully pulpit, urging Canadians as a society to do things he could not really force them to do.
There’s more pulpit than bullying, usually. The options for enforcing isolation measures, for example, are pretty unpalatable or impractical and, unless the vast majority of people are already onside, probably futile.
And that’s what makes the task at hand for today’s leaders so remarkable in fractured, divisive modern politics; it will rely in large part on leaders nudging society into a sense of cohesion.
That is now a much bigger part of the job description, and though his government hasn’t been flawless in this coronavirus crisis, Mr. Trudeau has clearly understood that part well.
In daily press conferences from self-isolation in Rideau Cottage, Mr. Trudeau doesn’t just announce or inform, he prods and preaches.
It would be better to include more information – the business community would like the government to be more specific about who should go home and stay home, for example. But while Mr. Trudeau’s critics have long called him preachy, that’s an asset on this particular crisis mission. And he is good at it.
He speaks in clipped phrases. He conjures the image already in the minds of many: the pictures of people gathered on the weekend in parks in Canada or on beaches in the United States. “We’ve all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think you’re invincible. Well, you’re not,” he said Monday. He chastises: You’re putting others at risk, he told those people, the ones in the pictures.
Mostly, this is a job for relentless, on-message messaging. That sounds easy enough but others have mixed their messages a lot. Mr. Trudeau and Health Minister Patty Hajdu repeat each other’s statements with only minor deviation. And both lecture.
That’s remarkable, because despite their dark warnings, they don’t have a lot of actual tools beyond the lecture. On the weekend, Mr. Trudeau said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to enforcing isolation measures, but really, any workable enforcement relies on first having most people accept the measures and abide by them.
Ms. Hajdu talked about a few possible measures to enforce isolation rules, such as “hotlines.” It’s hard to imagine a better way to position the we’re-all-in-this-together sense that governments are trying to cultivate than a 1-800 line where people snitch on their neighbour hosting a poker game.
The Health Minister had already talked about “criminal penalties,” but unless that’s for a very few extreme cases, it means asking police to spend a lot of time packing jails or issuing summons.
The task of getting large numbers to suddenly change their behaviour relies on social conscience and peer pressure.
That is why it is odd that Mr. Trudeau hasn’t gone out of his way to make this a multiparty appeal. A big chunk of the population can’t stand to listen to Mr. Trudeau preach, so why not ask Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, even if he is an outgoing leader, to echo the message?
And the preaching requires clearer direction as a companion. Canada’s big-business lobby, the Business Council of Canada, has asked Ottawa to step in to provide guidelines on who is an essential worker and who is not – because provinces and municipalities have created a hodgepodge of rules and recommendations.
But this is a crisis that has brought back a requirement for leaders to preach that almost seems anachronistic now – and it clear that Mr. Trudeau revels in doing his job from the pulpit.