A yellow light reopening

Abbas Rana, writing in the Hill Times, says that “With the country deep in the throes of a deadly global pandemic, veteran pollsters are predicting that the next federal election will be a referendum on how Justin Trudeau’s minority government managed COVID-19 and its impact on Canadians after this global crisis is over.

He quotes pollster Nik Nanos, founder and chief data scientist at Nanos Research, who says that ““We won’t know until the very end how much damage this will actually do to the economy … [and] … if people are out of work, and are underemployed or unemployed, it’s never good news for any incumbent government—even if the government says we did the best that we could. So, the fact of the matter is they’re going to be judged not just on a response, but also on managing the impact on the country.”

Mr. Nanos,” Mr Rana says, “described COVID-19 as an issue that is affecting the everyday lives—health and jobs—of all Canadians. He said the issue started to appear on Canadians’ radar in late January, and between mid-March and now it has shot up like “a rocket” in its importance to people. In comparison, the environment, which was a top-of-mind issue for Canadians in January, is now trending down in significance.” The coronavirus, Nik Nanos says, “”is engineered as the perfect runaway issue. What do I mean by that? You have the intersection of people’s health and jobs at the same time and it affects everyone. We always talk about issues that drive opinion or ones that are close to the day-to-day lives of Canadians, there’s nothing really more close to people’s day-to-day lives than the coronavirus right now, and the health concerns and the economic concerns they have.”

Abbas Rana says that “According to a Nanos Research survey released last week, 48.8 per cent of Canadians said that the coronavirus was the most important national concern to them, about 14 per cent identified health and economy as most important, and 5.6 per cent described environment as the top of mind issue. In mid-March, only about seven per cent of Canadians thought that coronavirus was the most important issue to them. The rolling poll of 1,000 Canadians came out on April 14 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20 … [while] … A Léger poll that also came out on April 14 … [of 1,508 Canadians conducted between 9 and 12 April which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20] … suggested that 76 per cent of Canadians were satisfied with the government’s efforts to fight COVID-19, while 84 per cent expressed support for the provincial government’s efforts, and 71 per cent approved of the way the municipal government tackled the pandemic … [and] … The survey suggested that if an election were held today, 39 per cent of decided voters would support the Liberal Party, 28 per cent would support the Conservatives, 18 per cent the NDP, and eight per cent would vote for the Greens.

This suggests, to me, that Prime Minister Trudeau’s ‘management‘ of the crisis, including his own self-isolation is, and has been from the very beginning, one big, extended PR stunt aimed at improving the Liberal Party’s standing in the polls. The Léger poll suggests it’s working … now. But Mr Nanos suggests that voters will tally up the impact on them and then make their choice. Most experts seem to agree that Canada, and the rest of the world, is headed. into a recession that will be worse than in 2008/09 and, perhaps, even into a full-blown depression. That, I think history tells us, is bad news for Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals. Canadians tend to punish parties that govern during a recession. Prime Minister Harper got a solid majority because his election came after the recovery had started. Although many other factors were at work, one of the reasons Prime Minister Kim Campbell lost so badly in 1993 was that it was perceived that the Progressive Conservatives had mismanaged the 1990-92 recession. My guess is that Prime Minister Trudeau warns, desperately, to hang on until a recovery is well underway. He wants to avoid meeting Parliament, he would much prefer to operate under a state of emergency and he is afraid that Premier Doug Ford, especially, is going to reap most of the political benefits fro. this crisis.

The key issues, right now, I think, is when do we begin t end the lock-downs, and: how?

That brings me to an interesting article by Anthony Furey in the Toronto Sun in which Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 06.37.56he describes a “yellow light” reopening of the economy. Mr Furey suggests that even if all the restraints are removed, and “if Canadians were given the green light in the next week or two for the reopening of society and told they could go back to life as usual without any restrictionsthey probably wouldn’t.”  Most of us, he says, will “be relieved to return to some sense of normalcy as the summer weather nears but, for the most part, we’d proceed with caution.

But, he says, “obviously, whatever is decided by Canadian officials in the coming weeks is not going to be a full green light. Nobody is asking for that. But as officials mull next steps, they should keep in mind that Canadians, who have been largely responsive to social distancing rules, can be trusted to responsibly reopen in small increments. We can handle a yellow-light approach.

The political key is that I believe that the “Canadian officials” who decide how to reopen the economy will be …

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 06.32.57

… Premiers Horgan, Kenney, Moe, Pallister, Ford and Legault and the others and few of them are Liberals and fewer are allied with Justin Trudeau.

I suspect that the Canadian premiers, and US state governors, all have agendas that differ from those of their national governments and try all, also, have their own partisan, political reasons for wanting to manage the reopening in their own ways and to take the credit, assuming things go well, and lay off any blame for whatever, inevitably, goes wrong onto either Justin Trudeau or Donald Trump, as appropriate.

Anthony Furey says that “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be pushing back against a cautious reopening. “Of course, conversations are ongoing now, but we’re still many weeks away from talking about actually doing anything to reopen our economy, even with the variations across the country,” Trudeau said Thursday during his daily press conference.” Obviously, he’s pushing back: a yellow-light reopening, managed province-by-province, is not going to do him any good at all. He’s getting a free ride right now while, essentially, the provinces do the heavy lifting. When the economy begins to reopen he will have to face uncomfortable questions about the national accounts. And when the economy begins to reopen it will be painful for many Canadians in many sectors … not everyone is going back to work. Unemployment will, likely, soar. Canadians, as I said, tend to punish national leaders during a recession.

The media is full of ideas about how and when the reopening can (must) occur. I’m guessing Mr Furey is correct that it will be a yellow light reopening and I’m also guessing that it will be done by provincial premiers with the federal government, as it has since this crisis began, playing second fiddle to the premiers.

Mr Furey says that “Canadians should take a moment to study the details of the White House’s three-phase guidelines to a reopening. Regions will be let out of the gate to commence phase one if they have a downward trajectory of cases and hospitals are able to treat people without crisis care … [that is already the case in some places in Canada and I am sure that Canadian provincial governments are making their own multi-phased plans as I wrote] … The first phase, which some states have signalled they will commence very soon, involves keeping at-risk individuals isolated and schools closed but allows for workplaces, stores, restaurants and gyms to reopen if they can effectively implement indoor social distancing policies. The next two phases slowly expand from there.” He says, and I agree, that “Something like this will invariably be what happens in Canada, and soon after our ICU numbers and new cases have consistently declined, we should be willing to give it a shot … [and he concludes that] … There will be rules to follow for such a yellow-light opening, but Canadians should be trusted to handle them.

The key point, I think, is that it will be John Horgan, Jason Kenney, Dough Ford and François Legault who make those decisions, each in his own time. They will advise Justin Trudeau about when and how they plan to reopen their provinces but they will not take direction from him and I also think that will be increasingly obvious to the Canadian people.

As we start to reopen, Canadians will want accountings from reeves and mayors, premiers and the prime minister, too. There will be questions about how different leaders reacted. Some will wonder, for example: why did provincial premiers have to put Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 08.21.55MAC36_BILL-BLAIR_POST01screening in place at federal airports? Premiers already are questioning the federal response; it will become more intense once the reopening begins. There will be serious questions about the federal public health and border security procedures. Some will ask if the Trudeau regime took the best scientific and technical advice or, instead, if they tried to bend the advice to suit their own partisan, political agenda. Some media outlets are already asking the right, tough questions. Others will follow suit.

Like the first flowers of spring, the first signs of a yellow-light reopening are already visible. Some of the pressure for easing restrictions will be hard to resist, and the reopening may begin too soon. I have seen several estimates which say that anything beyond late May is economically unmanageable, while other reports say that there might be rotating lockdowns of various sorts until 2022. These will be tough political and policy decisions and Prime Minister Trudeau and the premiers are bound to make some mistakes.

It is too soon to talk about a federal election, but Justin Trudeau must keep his base in Québec and in the Greater Toronto Area; conversely, the Conservatives must keep their base in the West and in small-town Ontario and expand, again, into the suburbs around Vancouver and Toronto. How well the COVOD-19 crisis is managed and how well it is perceived to have been handled by different leaders may well shape the country for a decade.

 

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