Lobbyists and politicians are having a kumbaya moment during COVID-19

ANALYSIS: Business groups siding with the NDP. Petroleum producers speaking highly of the Liberals. Politics is making for strange bedfellows these days — but can the goodwill outlast the pandemic?
By John Lorinc - Published on Apr 13, 2020
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said in a recent statement that it is encouraged by the actions being taken by Justin Trudeau's government. (Justin Tang/CP)

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Someday, when we look back on these hallucinatory weeks, it will be vividly clear that the old saw about politics making for strange bedfellows may never again get such a vigorous workout.

Consider but the latest examples of pandemic post-partisanship: the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a group that prides itself on lobbing bombs at such policies as minimum wage, stronger public pension plans, and mandatory sick days, made common cause with the NDP in calling for a 75 per cent rent subsidy for commercial landlords, presumably so that they won’t change the locks on the thousands of shuttered retailers that are among the CFIB’s core constituents.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, whose members are definitely not fans of Justin Trudeau’s green-ish Liberal government, sounded a positively encouraging note as it responded to new measures meant to help the beleaguered oil patch. Said CAPP president and CEO Tom McMillan in a statement last week, “We are encouraged by the actions the federal government has taken to date, and appreciate the continuous communication and consultation undertaken by the ministers and senior staff in key departments.”

And lobbyists with business-group clients report that they’ve been getting through to ministers who, just a few months ago, would have crossed the street to avoid them. “It’s been remarkably different, which is absolutely a good thing,” observes Elizabeth Roscoe, a veteran Hill + Knowlton Strategies adviser who once worked for former Tory finance minister Michael Wilson. Like many, she lauds the usually despised Canadian Revenue Agency, whose officials conjured up a way to rapidly transfer income supports to hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers.

The intriguing (though perhaps premature) question is whether this luminous kumbaya moment we’re in will outlive the pandemic and produce a different dynamic between groups — business associations, parties, the civil service — that normally perceive one another as antagonists in the zero-sum game of politics.

After all, as Strategycorp principal John Matheson notes, the post-pandemic “reconstruction” period will last quite a while, which means that groups with vastly different views of society and the role of government will have no choice but to work together. “If things are bad enough, I think, by definition, we’ll be more interdependent,” he says. “There’s no manual for this … People may not see the world differently [after COVID19], but they’ll realize they’ll have to do things differently.”

“Perhaps one of the positives in times like this is that it does bring people together,” adds CFIB president Dan Kelly, who predicts that it will take years to dig out from the massive deficits created by the stimulus programs being rolled out by the federal government and its provincial counterparts.
For the foreseeable future, the upshot is that there may be less finger pointing when it comes to debating how to contend with ballooning deficits, swollen employment-insurance rolls, and the inevitable instances of fraudulent misuse of the financial lifelines created to prevent companies from collapsing. If groups as ideologically varied as the Canadian Labour Congress and the CFIB more or less agree on the scope and scale of the fixes, and if Ottawa complies with almost all the requests for assistance and stimulus, it becomes far more difficult to assign blame.

Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, frames the dynamic slightly differently. “The challenges will be so large that business, labour, the NDP, and academe have to work together,” he says. “No one will have the ability to solve this on their own going forward.” Kelly and others add that the civil service, long derided for its hyper-cautious ways, will emerge with a new sense of what’s possible: “I suspect that some lessons will be learned in government that it’s not impossible to turn things around quickly.”

While this we’re-all-in-it-together zeitgeist may define the politics of the next few years, the participants, many of whom dabble in party warfare, have long memories and, in some cases, a knack for turning crises to their political advantage.

But beyond the cut-and-thrust of politics, some observers hope that the crisis, and the public sector’s capacity to serve as a failsafe, will create keener insights about the role that government plays in society. Veteran labour economist Jim Stanford points out that groups like the CFIB have long campaigned against measures such as a $15 minimum wage and mandatory sick days, but these talking points have taken on a very different cast at a time when supermarket clerks are seen to be performing an essential service. “We know that when you take away paid sick days, people go to work sick, and now we know that kills people,” he says. “I’d like to see the business community be a bit more self-critical of the things they did.”

Kelly, for his part, knows his small-government organization will be vulnerable to such accusations. “I suspect many on the left will say to people like me, ‘You’ve been arguing against higher taxes and bigger government for years, and [now] when you’re in an emergency, you’re calling for bigger government,’” he says. “There’s some truth in that, but this is a unique situation.” Still, he and other business lobbyists also assert, not incorrectly, that when governments keep spending in check in good times, they have the capacity to open the spigots when a crisis hits.

So, although the traditional ideological battle lines haven’t been erased so much as muted in the past several weeks, it seems plausible that the combatants — having made common cause in the face of an extremely dire situation — might listen to one another a bit more attentively, at least for the next few years.

These experiences may not exactly serve as a, well, vaccine against the worst excesses of corrosive partisan warfare (see: Donald Trump’s America, Canada Proud, Modern Miracle Network, etc.), but they perhaps point to a future that will include more civility, and less stupidity, in the critical debates about how to build a more resilient country.

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