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Analysis
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Coronavirus
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Federal Politics

Could the Skidding Vaccine Rollout Be the Thing that Crashes the Liberals?

The stakes could not be higher for Justin Trudeau right now.

Mitchell Anderson 29 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Wasn’t 2021 supposed to be better? Vaccines on the way and an end to the Trump era had us all looking forward to an epic pandemic wrap party and some welcome respite from political chaos. Sadly, there are still some black swans flapping around that could make 2020 seem like the good old days, and perhaps even imperil the Liberal Party of Canada.

For those who are neither partisan Liberals nor rabid Yellow Vest supporters, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sometimes seen as an insipid irritant — not terrible but tolerable. Regular self-inflicted scandals, reflexive over-reliance on secrecy and spin and a smug inability to accept responsibility seem baked into his political persona. And while these failings are increasingly annoying, the prospect of a prime minister Erin O’Toole is apparently worse to most Canadians.

However, these same foibles could become fatal to the Liberal brand in the unfolding crisis of vaccine availability. Canadians exhausted from the year-long pandemic assumed it would soon be an unpleasant memory. Not so fast.

It appears Ottawa badly bungled the job of securing a timely vaccine supply. Many other countries are already far ahead of Canada in protecting their citizens.

The U.S. — mostly under the chaotic Donald Trump regime — has so far vaccinated 24 million Americans. Canada may hit a million by February.

The Biden Administration is rapidly ramping up efforts and administered 1.6 million doses on Jan. 22 alone. The U.K. has managed to inoculate 10 per cent of its population, five times more than Canada has accomplished.

This race to vaccinate is newly critical, as highly infectious and perhaps more deadly variants threaten to overwhelm our tepid public health measures. Other nations like Germany are already grappling with what experts are calling a new pandemic. In this dangerous context, the EU even mused about restricting vaccine exports, further endangering Canadians. 

Time is running out. A frightening new report from Simon Fraser University projects COVID-19 cases could be doubling every one or two weeks within slightly more than a month. Canada’s average daily new case count peaked after Christmas at around 7,500. Recent modelling indicates the new variants could triple that burden on the health-care system by April.

While most vaccine formulations thankfully seem still effective on new strains, we are witnessing viral evolution in action. Are we in danger of missing the window to protect Canadians?

If our beleaguered health-care system collapses during significant vaccine delays compared to our allies, the predicable political pile-on from premiers and opposition parties will be both merciless and justified. If past crises are any guide, expect Trudeau to trot out the same tired playbook of opaque entitled deflection, as he has with SNC-Lavalin, the WE scandal or the resignation of his handpicked Governor General. 

In this scenario, the rage of Canadians watching the U.S. roll out more than one million vaccinations per day could become incandescent. Mere incompetence on the vaccine procurement file might be forgivable, but there is troubling evidence the Liberals are also seeking to conceal potentially damning documents as well.

Transparency has never been Trudeau’s strong suit, and this week it came to light that Canada’s first vaccine candidate from CanSino Biologics Inc. went off the rails just days after the prime minister announced the deal in May. However, the public was not informed of the bad news until three months later. For unknown reasons, the Liberals are also stubbornly refusing to make public documents relating to our other vaccine contracts.

Whether the federal government likes it or not, opposition parties are beginning to pry open the secrecy surrounding what happened behind closed doors as COVID-19 took hold. Last fall, Parliament ordered the government to release thousands of pages of memos, emails and reports, which are only now beginning to trickle out.

This week a scathing internal audit from the Public Health Agency of Canada revealed the federal government was woefully unprepared for the pandemic after purging the public service of qualified experts.

Other incoming revelations may land with devastating political timing. An Auditor General investigation as well as an independent review ordered by the health minister on similar troubling allegations could be released around the same time as COVID-19 cases explode due to the more contagious variants.

We should hope these investigations will mainly reveal that hard-working public officials made imperfect decisions during incredibly challenging circumstances. At the very least such formal reviews will help to better hone our public response to the next pandemic.

However, if credible evidence comes to light that the PMO ineptly meddled in the vaccine procurement process, as it has with many other important files, the political damage could be irreversible. The continual culture of secrecy within the Trudeau government does little to dispel legitimate questions from the public.

The last time the Liberal party was exiled into oblivion the circumstances were strangely similar. Years of entitled arrogance under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin had already built up a substantial fuel load of public resentment that explosively ignited with the sponsorship scandal.

Public disgust propelled the “natural governing party” into exile for almost 10 years. During this dark decade, the Harper government did its level best to dismantle a variety of public institutions, delayed meaningful action on our climate emergency and squandered a potential partnership with a progressive U.S. president.

Are we there again? Unlike previous political tempests, this time it’s personal. Watching your tax dollars shovelled towards cozy Liberal ad firms, as in the sponsorship scandal, might be merely annoying. Seeing your friends and family endangered by avoidable failures is enraging.

After a year of ineffectual public health half-measures, Canadians in lockdown are increasingly exhausted and fed up. Much of the bipartisan good will from early in the pandemic is also long gone.

Of course, no government has had a flawless response to the pandemic, nor could they. Trudeau and his government deserve credit for calm and consistent public messaging in the early days and for rolling out enormous emergency relief programs in short order. Canada has also fared better in the last year than the U.S. under Trump, but that is a decidedly low bar.

But Canadians may soon be casting a covetous gaze at the bold action apparently possible from the Biden Administration and wonder why the suite of emergency legal powers at Trudeau’s disposal remain unused a year into a once-in-a-century disaster.

Liberals have been scheming about a snap election to secure a majority mandate. Instead, the combination of black swan circumstance, procurement errors emerging at the worst possible moment and Trudeau’s inherent failings could potentially carry the party into electoral oblivion.

With a deep bench of talent, it’s a shame that all the wrong people have all been made to walk to the plank to atone for Trudeau’s past poor judgment, including the likes of Jane Philpott, Jody Wilson-Raybould and even Bill Morneau.

With a scandal of existential proportions brewing, perhaps it is time for the Liberal party brain trust to consider jettisoning a more appropriate piece of ballast over the side in order to save their imperilled vessel.  [Tyee]

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