We need to talk about pandemic recovery. Did we need an election to do that?

OPINION: Canada’s facing important questions about the post-pandemic world. It’s not clear an election will answer them
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 09, 2021
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a campaign stop in Gatineau, Quebec, on September 8. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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The federal Liberals have tried as hard as possible to convince voters that this is, to use their phrase, “the most important election since 1945.” They might even believe that, though it’s impossible to let the claim pass without a bit of a history lesson: the 1945 election had waited very nearly as long as the Constitution allowed — the war in Europe was over, but fighting continued in the Pacific — and the Liberals campaigned on the underwhelming platform of demanding that voters return them to the majority they believed they were owed for having steered Canada through the emergency of the war. Voters responded to the hubris by substantially reducing the Liberal numbers in the House of Commons and increasing the numbers of Tories and the CCF (the precursor to the NDP). While voters left William Lyon Mackenzie King with a bare workable majority, he was defeated in his own seat and had to run again in a byelection later that summer.

It was not, in short, a cakewalk for the Liberals. The fun thing about history is that sometimes the parallels we draw for say more than we intended them to.

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Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want readers to get the sense that this is a Seinfeld election — a vote about nothing at all. There are important issues to debate about where the country should go from here; it’s just that it’s hard to have a reasonable argument about where we should go next when we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. Indeed, we’re now facing a fourth wave that’s already (in some provinces, though mercifully not in Ontario yet) as severe as previous ones.

Arguably the biggest single change the Liberals are proposing to introduce if they’re re-elected involves child care. Even before the pandemic, there were strong arguments, based on Quebec’s experience, that increased workforce participation from women covered the increased child-care costs on the government’s ledgers. And the serial lockdowns of the pandemic have made it impossible to deny how much of the burden of child-rearing falls to women.

But we should take the polls seriously when they tell us that this isn’t a clincher for voters: Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives are quite forthright about their intention to unravel the Liberal child-care plan if they form government. And they’re running even with the Liberals or even slightly ahead, depending on which day of the week you look at the numbers. If the Tories aren’t currently in a confident position to form government, well, neither are any of the parties supporting a big push for national child care: $10 a day childcare is popular. It’s just not galvanizing as an electoral issue.

Or we could look at housing: even before the pandemic, high rents and purchase costs for homes in most of the Canadian cities that were leading in jobs growth were conspiring to strangle Canada’s economic growth and prosperity. The Liberals have delivered a national housing strategy, but results have, frankly, been underwhelming — and, in any case, the re-shuffling of population induced by the pandemic, as many urban dwellers fled for different parts of the country, would be reason enough to  rethink what we want a national housing policy to accomplish.

We could also have a serious conversation about remote work and how much we expect it to be part of our lives going forward. If we’re all going to be back in offices Monday to Friday before next Canada Day, maybe nothing needs to change. But if remote work were to become a permanent feature of our post-pandemic lives, that would call into question such things as federal income-tax policy (will homeowners get to keep claiming home-office expenses as those grow?) and infrastructure spending (should we spend more money on highways and subways that we might not need, or increase spending on rural broadband?).

There are plenty of real issues to discuss, if we want to talk about pandemic recovery. But we do actually have to get to the “recovery” part of the pandemic first. And we’re not there yet. Recent events in western provinces —Alberta most especially, but British Columbia, too — have shown that COVID-19 hospitalizations can climb rapidly even in highly vaccinated populations if public-health measures are relaxed too quickly. This ought to reaffirm the importance of vaccinations, and, yes, of government policies, such as vaccine passports. Alberta tested the hypothesis that we could simply declare the pandemic over; events quickly and comprehensively proved it wrong. At least now we know: true recovery can begin only when a substantially higher percentage of the population has been vaccinated.

All of the above would be reasonable fodder for a debate about Canada’s post-pandemic recovery. It’s just not clear that we needed an election for that debate. With less than two weeks to go, it’s still possible somebody will find that galvanizing issue; maybe one of the party leaders will put in a dramatically improved performance at Thursday’s televised debate. Barring that, it’s not clear what this election will actually resolve.

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