If our leaders want to portray unity, maybe it’s time to share the microphone

All of Canada’s first ministers have received plaudits for their leadership in this crisis. Should they start sharing the spotlight?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 24, 2020
Premier Doug Ford has been getting strong reviews for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. (Chris Young/CP)

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Let’s state this right out of the gate: in the main, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario premier Doug Ford, and Toronto mayor John Tory are getting pretty strong reviews for the way they’re handling the COVID-19 crisis.

They’ve looked and sounded professional at their public briefings, they’ve kept any hint of mindless partisanship out of their presentations, and they’ve demonstrated empathy with the plight of their fellow citizens.

(Do I need to say that the American president, during all his increasingly churlish press conferences, has demonstrated none of those qualities? Probably not.)

Our leaders have even taken to their respective bully pulpits to chastise citizens who aren’t getting with the program. From Trudeau’s “Enough is enough,” to Ford’s “Get your act together; if you won’t do it, we will do it,” both the PM and premier have now demonstrated a level of ticked-off-ness that shows they mean business.

But there’s another theme that’s run through all our leaders’ presentations — and that’s unity. They’ve urged all of us to work together to defeat the coronavirus; Ford even went so far as to say, on the floor of the legislature, “There’s no blue party or red party or orange party or green party. There’s just Team Ontario and Team Canada.”

If that’s the case, isn’t it time to share the spotlight with the opposition leaders as well?

Let me take you back to November 1967. It was Canada’s Centennial year. Throughout the sixties, Quebec had become increasingly restive, to the point that bombs were blowing up in mailboxes as separatists flexed their muscles.

It’s a measure of how impressive a leader Ontario’s unilingual anglophone premier John Robarts was that he wanted to understand this phenomenon better. There were no votes in it for him. He’d just won a second consecutive majority government.  He just loved Canada.

And, so, he invited all the country’s premiers to the top floor of the Toronto-Dominion Centre to have a public discussion about what Quebec wanted. (The building was so new, they hadn’t even laid the carpeting yet.)

Since the theme of the conference was national unity, Robarts did something extraordinary. He invited opposition leader Robert Nixon and NDP leader Donald C. McDonald to sit behind him as part of the Ontario delegation, even though he’d just vanquished both of them at the polls. And they accepted. Robarts didn’t just talk unity. He projected it. He walked the walk.

Admittedly, that was more than half a century ago. But I wonder: Is there a place for that kind of gesture in today’s Canada? If defeating COVID-19 is really our singular national project at the moment, would it not send a powerful signal of unity of purpose to the country for the prime minister to do a media briefing with the leaders of the Conservative, New Democratic, Bloc Québécois, and Green parties — especially as Trudeau won the weakest mandate of any minority government in Canadian history?

And wouldn’t it say something impressive about Ford if he went to the podium at Queen’s Park one day with the NDP’s Andrea Horwath, new Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, and Mike Schreiner of the Greens on hand? (All appropriately two metres apart, of course.)

We know they’re all working together behind the scenes. We saw that demonstrated last week when important proposed legislation sailed through Queen’s Park on a unanimous vote. Yes, the crass political advice suggests that, if a first minister has a monopoly on the microphone, that advantage must be jealously guarded for as long as possible.

But, at some point — and we’re not there yet — voters may decide that our leaders are using their privileged positions less for conveying genuinely important new information and more for exploiting their political advantage. And what better way to disprove those hunches than by being able to say, “Who, me? You can’t mean me. I just did a press conference with all my political opponents. I’m not playing politics here. This has always been about our unified national mission.”

Robarts showed it could be done. Trump has already demonstrated his lack of fitness for the moment by constantly harping on his political adversaries (Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton, and on and on) during his briefings.

Which of Canada’s leaders will rise to the occasion and demonstrate this kind of unity? It need happen only once. But what a signal it would send.

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