Once again, it is the season when hoary journalism tradition dictates that the columnist pause, review the year about to end and peer through his or her foggy glasses at the one that lies ahead.
No one could have predicted the year that 2020 turned out to be – a COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, or the bizarre twists in the tale of the worst president in American history: Donald Trump’s defeat (semi-predictable); the emergence of ancient Joe Biden from the boneyard of politics; Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his loss; and the millions of Americans who subscribed to the absurd conspiracy theory that a massive electoral fraud had stolen the presidency from the man who had Made America Great Again.
We should expect the unexpected again in 2021. The various vaccines being rushed to market may – or may not – conquer COVID, but there are bound to be complications and setbacks, and they will spawn new conspiracy theories and fuel the swelling anti-vaxxer movement. How governments will deal with the dangerous anti-vaxxers and the civil rights issues their cause creates could be one of the big stories of 2021.
Nor can we expect Trump to go softly into the good night. He has already raised an estimated $200 million to launch a political resurrection. Will he show up at Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20? If he does, will he behave himself? If he doesn’t show up, won’t his boycott be seen by the Proud Boys and his millions of core followers as a signal to gird for a war of redemption?
And what about Canada in 2021? We have anti-vaxxers, too. They will pose a challenge for Justin Trudeau whose credentials as a defender of Charter rights will be put to the test if large numbers of Canadians refuse, on one pretext or another, to be vaccinated. Will he seek to make vaccination mandatory? That’s a confrontation the Prime Minister would surely prefer to avoid in what may be an election year.
The minority Liberal government will reach the midpoint of a normal four-year term in the fall. Soon it will be living on borrowed time. Peering through the aforementioned fogged-up glasses, it seems from this distance there is at least an even chance of a general election before 2021 is over. Whether will be a pandemic election or one centred on other issues such as the Liberal climate agenda, as Trudeau seems to prefer, is anyone’s guess. When it happens will depend on events, the circumstances in which the four principal parties find themselves, and, of course, the polls. (Last week’s Nanos poll put the Liberals 10 points ahead nationally.)
When the election does come, the Liberals will be up against a new Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, who is busily digging himself and his party into place a generation or so behind public opinion on many issues, social and economic.
It may not matter. Pandemic fatigue in an electorate fed up with being told what to do – or else – by government rule-makers could prompt voters to embrace the Conservatives, however threadbare their policies. Remember Winston Churchill. He won the war, only to lose the election that followed.
But back to present. Many commentators dismiss 2020 as an annus horribilis, a year best forgotten.
Not so fast. Twenty-twenty has supplied a couple of valuable reminders. One is, when Canadians put aside their differences and accept inconvenience and a measure of hardship to work in harness, great things can be achieved. We did it in times of war; in 2020 we did it to tame the pandemic in its first wave, if not so much in the second.
The other reminder comes from observing the assault on democracy south of the border. Donald Trump may not have diminished democracy in the United States in 2020, but he demonstrated how a president who does not give a tinker’s damn about democracy can spurn it with impunity. The anti-demographic forces he unleashed are not finished yet. They are both a reminder and a warning that democracy needs to be treated with care and respect in Canada, too.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].