Note to Doug Ford: Two years from now, nobody’s going to blame you for overreacting

OPINION: The provincial government is taking the measured advice of professionals and being careful not to panic. That’s good — but it may not be enough
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 16, 2020
The provincial government held a press conference Monday at an otherwise largely empty Queen’s Park. (John Michael McGrath)

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Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Health Christine Elliott, Minister of Finance Rod Phillips, and Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton held a press conference this morning at Queen’s Park — a building that was otherwise mostly a ghost town, and not just because of the regularly scheduled spring break. The assembled cabinet firepower was there to announce new measures the government is taking to combat the economic fallout from the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tories will introduce new legislation to protect workers who have to self-isolate or stay home to watch their children now that schools are closed. Those protections will be retroactive to January 25, the day the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Ontario.

It’s a good measure, but it should be just the beginning. The premier says that “everything is on the table” in terms of emergency measures, but what’s more important is what’s going to be in legislation. The NDP is, in effect, asking for a moratorium on evictions (specifically, a guarantee that “no one can be punished in any way for missing a rent or mortgage payment”). And, so far, the government’s measures don’t help the self-employed and will do relatively little for people who rely on part-time or shift work.

It is both understandable and laudable that the government doesn’t want make citizens any more panicked than they already are. And the tone of today’s press conference — calm, measured, and only minimally politicized — was certainly welcome to many. But Ontarians get the news from outside our borders, too. We can see what’s happened in China, in Italy, and even in the United States, where governments are ordering broad shutdowns to try to contain the spread — and we can see how places that hesitated have been ravaged by the disease. We can see that medical professionals, and even just attentive citizens, are wondering why the government isn’t doing more, faster.

The government’s powers are substantial: under existing law, it can declare an emergency and limit or prohibit large gatherings; it can close public places and even force private businesses to close. It can effectively compel municipalities to take provincial direction notwithstanding their mayors or councils. On the spending side, even without the legislature’s permission, it can spend money through “special warrants,” a power usually restricted to election periods and intended to ensure that essential government spending isn’t interrupted. In Ottawa, the federal power for special warrants was loosened up before MPs adjourned on Friday, so it’s clearly one that elected leaders are thinking about.

(On the topic of Ottawa: I would never tell readers to ignore any level of government — municipal provincial, or federal. But readers should understand that the truism “health care is a provincial responsibility” means something in a public-health crisis: the strongest and most direct measures to deal with this emergency are going to come from the provinces, not the federal government. The federal government has its role — namely, much more room to spend money — but it’s going to be the provinces that determine the course of events.)

It is understandable that the government wants to minimize the disruption to people’s lives, and it isn’t going to be easy for it to throw fiscal caution to the wind, but it’s increasingly likely that that’s what events will require.

The good news for the Tories is that, to put it succinctly, nobody is going to care by the time the next election rolls around. They wanted to be able to tell voters in 2022 that the province’s books were very nearly balanced; nobody’s going to care. They wanted to make teachers unions bend to more spending restraint; nobody’s going to care. They wanted to seek a second mandate for continued transit-building; nobody’s going to care.

The next weeks and months are going be fiendishly complicated. The details of dealing with a crisis like this are honestly beyond my comprehension. There will, inevitably, be mistakes — the nature of a massive government in a province of 14 million makes it a certainty. But we can err on the side of caution. What the government needs to keep in mind is terrifyingly simple: if you get this wrong, nothing else will matter. If you get this right, the public will forgive just about anything.

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