Delivering his first major speech in the House of Commons as leader of the Official Opposition this week, Erin O’Toole made this observation: “A time of crisis and uncertainty is not the time to conduct social experiments like those set out in the throne speech.”
The Conservative leader did not specify which of the ideas in the throne speech he regarded as “social experiments.” Reforms to employment insurance? A national child-care system? New standards for long-term care? Promoting the use of zero-emission vehicles? Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
O’Toole is, of course, not wrong when he says this is a time of great uncertainty. The interest among Canadians in actual grand social experiments is no doubt quite limited right now. Citizens surely would like to feel as stable and secure as possible — to be reassured and comforted by the actions of their leaders.
But what do stability and security look like now? And who can offer it? These are the key questions of the moment, and for the future.
There are a great many things worth worrying about right now. First and foremost is the pandemic — both the grave threat posed by the virus and the incredible economic and social damage it has caused. And those crises also have exposed significant weaknesses and points of vulnerability, from deep inequalities in society to the fragility of important supply chains.
There’s also the threat of climate change and the transformation of the global economy that it makes necessary (or inevitable). And the horrifying implosion of American democracy. And the unrestrained audacity of China. And the destabilizing threat of Russia. These were things worth worrying about well before a global pandemic took hold.
O’Toole’s Conservatives would add at least two other things to that list: “national unity” (specifically, the anxieties and unhappiness felt by many people in Alberta and Saskatchewan) and the federal debt.
Fear of a fiscal meltdown
Many economists would caution against worrying too much about the federal deficit right now, but Canadians might be conditioned to worry about government spending. A survey released this week by Canada 2020, a progressive think-tank in Ottawa, found that 74 per cent of respondents at least somewhat agreed with the statement that “after this pandemic is over, we will need leaders to be uncompromising to get Canada’s finances in order.” (The survey was conducted by Data Sciences, an analytics company founded by Tom Pitfield, a close friend and adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Gerald Butts, a former adviser to Trudeau, assisted in the design and analysis of the poll.)
Eighty-one per cent of respondents also agreed that “the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over [and] the government should keep its eye on the ball,” while 62 per cent agreed with the statement: “I am still afraid that I will contract COVID-19.” Just 48 per cent agreed that “the government should use this moment in time to introduce big changes to Canadian society by introducing new programs and services.”
Eighty-eight per cent of respondents still agreed that there is a “need to implement extensive social programs to make sure that Canadians across the country are provided for.” Based on that and other findings, Canada 2020’s analysis concludes that Canadians “aren’t sure what they want exactly.”
A shift in messaging
Public concerns about the near-term threat of the pandemic could explain why Justin Trudeau’s government changed its public messaging in the days leading up to the throne speech — to de-emphasize its vision for the long term and confirm its focus on the immediate crisis.
It also would explain why Conservatives are dedicating a lot of their energy right now to trying to blame the Trudeau government for any and all shortcomings in this country’s response to the pandemic — and why O’Toole is warning about “social experiments.”
The Conservative leader said it was “as though simply ensuring that Canadian families have good jobs is not prestigious enough for this prime minister.” O’Toole attacked Trudeau’s credibility and spoke about small businesses, the resource sector and China. He said little or nothing about child care, long-term care, new support for the unemployed or climate change (neither O’Toole’s first speech as Conservative leader nor his first speech as leader of the opposition in the House contained the word “climate”).
But those issues were prominent in a throne speech that promised a “stronger and more resilient Canada.” “Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed?” the government asked through Gov. Gen. Julie Payette last week.
How do we make ourselves feel safe now?
The Liberals argue that Canadians will feel more stable and secure if they have better access to child care, better care for the elderly and an improved EI system, and if the country is moving with some haste to reduce its emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. For Liberals, these are foundational elements of a better future — changes that are, in many cases, already overdue.
O’Toole might still have more to say about such things. But if Conservatives don’t want to match or support the Liberal plans, they can raise concerns about whether the government can afford it — or whether Trudeau can be trusted to deliver it.
Or they can try to speak to the anxiety that often results when change is discussed. In his remarks on Wednesday, O’Toole said that the vision presented in the throne speech was of “a Canada where the government decides what jobs people have and what cars they drive, a Canada where millions of Canadians are knowingly left behind and are told the country will be building back better without them.”
Much of O’Toole’s speech was dedicated to this idea that Trudeau’s Liberals were leaving people behind. But that was also a stated preoccupation of the throne speech. “Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind?” the government asked.
In short, what ends up emerging from these uncertain times could be two very different visions of how to achieve stability and security.
But if there is a social experiment being conducted here, it is the pandemic itself — an inescapable and extended crisis that affects nearly every facet of modern life, sickening some, traumatizing others and weighing heavily on everyone.
The pandemic has been presented as a test of resilience and unity. But it’s also a test of how well our leaders can provide reassurance — and of what people want.