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John Ivison: Too soon to make definitive judgment on Trudeau's handling of COVID-19 crisis

Bill Clinton secured his reputation as the “Comeback Kid” with his response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The widely-ridiculed president with a woman problem channelled the nation’s grief, handling the tragedy with empathy and compassion. “It was the moment he was born to be president for,” said George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s communications director – a moment that set him on course for re-election the following year.

By contrast, George W. Bush’s lack of leadership after the 280 km/h winds of Hurricane Katrina lashed New Orleans a decade later left a stain on his presidency he was never able to wipe off. It took Bush three days after the storm to return to the Oval Office from his Texas ranch, while residents of the benighted city died of thirst, exhaustion and violence. The picture of him flying over the flooded city, peering out of the porthole window of Air Force One summed up his impotence. “Once the bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public,” said biographer, Nigel Hamilton, in his book, American Caesars.

Which brings us to Justin Trudeau. Does his handling of the COVID-19 crisis more closely resemble Clinton or Bush’s response? It is too soon to make any definitive judgments but the early reviews are positive, even from people who have been harsh critics.

Trudeau has always risked being out of touch with Canadians – such as during his Christmas vacation to the Aga Khan’s island. But this may be the moment for which he was born to be prime minister – a crisis where his self-assurance, resolve and absolute conviction are ideally suited to circumstance.

Trudeau’s approval rating, which in late 2016 stood at a net positive 35, has since inverted – nearly two thirds of Canadians disapproved on his performance in late February, while only one third approved.

It is a good bet momentum has shifted dramatically since then.

This is not just a numbers game. In the teeth of an emergency, the country craves leadership and the relief that comes with the sense that the people running the government know what they are doing.

Our politicians and public servants are often berated for an apparent inability to operate anything more complicated than a kettle.

But after a slow start, the prime minister, his cabinet and senior bureaucrats like chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, have provided clear direction and a regular flow of information to anxious Canadians.

This is not just a numbers game

Trudeau invoked a cultural backlash in his first four years among certain segments of the electorate – older men, the religious, the less educated, those in the ethnic majority – many of whom felt they had been abandoned by progressive policies and values they didn’t understand.

In the past week, the wedge of identity politics has been replaced by a pan-Canadianism, most recently in an appeal for all citizens to do their part. “Every single Canadian has a responsibility,” he said.

The harder tone in his press conference on Monday reflected evidence that Canadians are not treating the virus seriously. The prime minister suggested that the government is prepared to use the law to enforce physical distancing. “Enough is enough. Go home and stay home,” he said.

A “mobility index” created by Citymapper, a route planning application with 20 million users, reinforced his point. It tracked activity in 40 cities worldwide, rating their usual movement versus their current level of bustle. Last Friday, more than one in four people in Toronto and Vancouver were still moving around, compared to one in 10 in San Francisco and New York, and one in 20 in Rome, Paris and Madrid.

The steady leadership the government has shown in the past week should not, however, mean heedless acceptance of all its efforts.

The House of Commons reconvenes in pared down format on Tuesday. The opposition parties have indicated they will support the government’s emergency legislation. But some Conservatives, like Ontario MP Scott Reid, have called for more oversight of the $27 billion in new spending. As Reid points out, it is inevitable that errors will be made when releasing such colossal sums. “How could it be otherwise?” he said. The solution when the normal examination in advance is not an option is a parliamentary committee to provide on-going monitoring, he said, “rather than blindly hoping that the Executive will perform with flawless competence over a period of several months.”

That seems entirely appropriate – as does the Conservative Party’s suggestion that the government significantly increase the three month temporary wage subsidy to protect workers from the current 10 per cent (to a maximum of $1,375 per employee). In the aftermath of the decision of the British government to introduce an 80 per cent subsidy, there is pressure on the government, even from its own MPs, to take things up a notch. “We need to flatten the curve of Employment Insurance,” said one Liberal, noting the half million Canadians who applied for EI last week.

The real hour of decision will come when the prime minister is forced to balance the health of Canadians with the well-being of the economy.

At some point, Trudeau is going to have to make a choice to pivot from COVID constraint to economic normalcy. For a government that has been more focused on the social than the economic, and a prime minister who seems to think the golden goose has an unlimited supply of eggs, that will be the moment to offer a more definitive assessment about whether his handling of the COVID crisis has been on a par with the Comeback Kid or more comparable with the fumbles of Uncurious George.

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