Of all the controversial covers Maclean’s magazine has run over the years, few attracted a bigger backlash than its December 2018 edition. It featured Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer flanked by Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, Brian Pallister and Scott Moe, all wearing their best blue suits and sporting their best tough-guy demeanours. The headline, though, put it over the top: “The Resistance.” This was a cheeky nod to the anti-Trump movement in the United States, and the text underneath described them as a “powerful new alliance” ready to stand against the prime minister’s climate plan. “Welcome to Justin Trudeau’s worst nightmare,” it blared in boldface.
So much for that. The conservative premier quartet might actually be one of Trudeau’s best assets in the next election, whenever that comes. And while their tone-deaf approach to Trudeau’s climate plan certainly plays a role in that, it’s been their ongoing resistance to the best advice of doctors and other public health experts doing the heavy lifting here.
According to a recent Environics Research poll, when asked who they trust more to make the right decisions in handling the pandemic, Canadians in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba were most likely to say the federal government. On the flip side, they were also the four places where residents were least likely to prefer their own provincial governments, with only 18 per cent of Albertans and 20 per cent of Ontarians trusting their premiers.
It’s no wonder. While the federal government has made mistakes along the way, from its failure to close the borders early to some hiccups in the vaccine procurement process, they pale in comparison to the litany of anti-scientific goals that have defined the responses in Canada’s “resistance” provinces.
The Ford government’s recent behaviour, which included closing playgrounds and other public recreation areas and closing public schools one day after insisting they would remain open has been particularly egregious. Andrew Morris, an infectious diseases specialist and member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, was unsparing in his description of the Ford government’s response. “They haven’t learned anything over the past six to 12 months,” he told Toronto Life. “I don’t understand it. It’s just so disappointing.”
By constantly trying to balance the needs of the economy against the imperatives of a dangerous virus, and by catering to their political base rather than trying to lead it, premiers like Ford and Kenney have managed to both frustrate and infuriate their populations. And while they may eventually pay a high political price for their incompetence, the people who voted them into power in the first place ought to reflect on their role in this.
After all, that fateful Maclean’s cover speaks to a moment in Canadian politics when populist politicians promising easy solutions, from buck-a-beer to pipelines aplenty, were on the rise. But as COVID-19 should have taught everyone by now, simple solutions are no match for the complexity of the real world and challenges like a global health crisis.
That’s why populist leaders like Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Great Britain’s Boris Johnson have failed the test the virus has presented in spectacular (and lethal) fashion. And make no mistake: there will be other tests in the future that these populists haven’t studied for, whether it’s climate change, wealth inequality or another pandemic.
Once we’re able to vaccinate our way out of the abyss that Ontario and other provinces now find themselves in, we need a reckoning with the politics that got them there in the first place.
First and foremost, we need to stop electing people who don’t believe in government, and who insist on running them like personal fiefdoms when entrusted with their administration. We saw what the rise of know-nothing, pro-business populism did to Great Britain and the United States, and we may have comforted ourselves here in Canada with the belief that we were better than that. We aren’t.
As COVID-19 should have taught everyone by now, simple solutions are no match for the complexity of the real world and challenges like a global health crisis, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #cdnpoli #ableg #onpoli
We also need to start demanding a higher standard of education and professional achievement in our leaders. Prideful ignorance is no match for the ever-more complex challenges of our time, and governing from the gut can have disastrous consequences. The fact that the 56-year-old premier of Ontario reportedly doesn’t even know how to use a laptop is an obvious punchline, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence in his ability to handle more complex challenges.
The good news here is that even some conservatives seem to appreciate that their movement’s ongoing flirtation with anti-intellectual populism is leading them down a dangerous road. As former Stephen Harper adviser Sean Speer wrote in a recent piece, the Liberal government’s new budget is “a powerful (and perhaps sobering) sign that progressives are winning the battle of ideas.”
So far, though, Canada’s conservative leaders still seem drunk on their preferred populist cocktail of misinformation and blame-shifting. On the same day the Liberal budget was announced, former finance critic and party heavyweight Pierre Poilievre tweeted a deliberately misleading chart about the federal debt — one that was duly picked up and shared by other members of his caucus.
There’s still time for conservatives in Canada to start taking that battle of ideas more seriously. If they do, they may yet be able to meet the increasingly complex challenges that lie ahead. But one thing should be abundantly clear: while populism can be a good way to get elected, it’s a terrible way to govern.