Would anyone care to second a motion that we declare a National Day of Appreciation for Politicians?
Perhaps not. Our instinct as citizens, taxpayers and voters is to criticize and condemn, not to compliment and thank, the men and women we elect to do the heavy lifting of democracy.
But surely this is an appropriate occasion – a year into the COVID-19 pandemic – to contemplate what a bruising year it has been for elected representatives. Although I’m thinking of the federal variety, provincial politicians have taken their share of the bruising.
The pandemic changed everything. Political agendas went out window when COVID struck. Caught less than prepared, the Trudeau government has spent the year reacting to challenges thrown up by the coronavirus. A new complication seemed to surface almost every day. No testing equipment. A dire shortage of protective gear. A crisis in long-term care homes – that neglected sector of the health system, chronically ignored by the public and politicians alike; the issue will be front and center again this week when the New Democrats raise it for debate on their opposition day,
A need to turn the tax system on a dime (so to speak) from sucking in revenue to pumping out billions to support workers losing their jobs and companies their customers. A need to create systems to receive applications and deliver emergency funds. (The surprising thing about the WE charity/student grant scandal was not that it happened, but that it was the only one, so far as we know.)
The Liberals also had to cope with decades of neglect by successive administrations, including their own, on another front: the country has no means of producing vaccine – an alarming incapacity dating to the privatization of Connaught Laboratories by the Mulroney Conservatives in the late 1980s and the subsequent sale of the facility to offshore interests.
Justin Trudeau surely never dreamed he would find himself presiding over historic deficits or competing in an international race to identity promising vaccines while they were still in the development stage, then gambling public funds to pre-order vast quantities. The government can claim some credit for securing three successful vaccines, if not for hiding their cost from the public.
To stay with the Liberals for a moment, the pandemic has not been the only crisis on their watch, although the others may seem almost routine in comparison. There was the court-ordered deadline to write and enact a new law on the highly charged issue of assisted dying; the startling loss of two chiefs of defence staff, both under investigation for inappropriate behaviour involving female subordinates – a crisis that may yet claim the career of the minister of defence; the Rideau Hall scandal that forced the resignation of the governor general (as yet unreplaced); and, as events of the past week made clear, a cold war in East Asia as the United States tries to curb Chinese aggression in the region – a confrontation that will make it impossible for the foreseeable future to negotiate the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
Turning to the Conservatives, the pandemic as been no picnic for them, either. They won more popular votes than the Liberals in 2019. They have a new leader desperate to make his mark. In a normal Parliament, they would have the minority Liberals on their heels, be pushing them to the wall on every vote. They might well have forced an election by now – and be celebrating Erin O’Toole debut as prime minister.
But the pandemic Parliament is no normal Parliament. The opposition suffers a distinct disadvantage when the Commons is reduced to virtual sittings, with an almost empty chamber and speeches and questions delivered by video. The Tories need the pulpit, the megaphone, of the real Parliament – and the accompanying media exposure – to call the government to account, expose its failures, and create momentum for themselves.
Instead, the Tories trail badly in the polls, and are allowing the Liberals to govern as though they have a majority. What’s more, the Conservatives are a party that generally manage to find ways to make life difficult for itself, and they are at it again. At their weekend convention, climate change deniers in the Conservative ranks outvoted the elected wing, or most of it, to reject O’Toole’s simple statement – “Climate change is real.” The Tories are left with vulnerable leader, weakened from within, and with no environmental platform, aside from opposition to a carbon tax, on which to fight an election that will be called whenever the Liberals choose.
Many of the problems of today’s politicians are forced on them by events beyond their control; others are of their own making.
So, no National Day of Appreciation. No huge expression of sympathy. Maybe just a nod to show we understand the rigours and demands of the life of those we elect to serve us?
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired recently last month from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].