Enhancing political and civic leadership

Earlier this month, the Ottawa Pearson Centre, a leading Canadian think tank, sponsored the Change Conference; Planning for the Unpredictable. It was a timely initiative, given the ravages of the pandemic, and it brought together a cross section of participants, including federal political leaders. The discussion focused on ideas for rebuilding a number of our country’s critical sectors, including the economy, energy, transportation, Canadian culture, the future of work, and political leadership and democracy.

When governments and businesses talk today about the post Covid-19 era, a popular refrain is the need for “building back better”. The label has a catchy, positive ring to it. The critical word is ‘better’. However, the key questions are; what defines better? And who does the defining?

As a former elected representative, I asked myself, how might this apply to political leadership in preparation for the next crisis? Let me share with you a number of thoughts.

First, at the appropriate time, the Canadian Parliament must conduct a thorough and objective postmortem on how Canada responded to the coronavirus crisis. No political theatre, just the facts. All of the facts — good, bad, and the ugly.

A special parliamentary committee, comprised of both MP’s and Senators, should be established, with relevant witnesses being invited to openly discuss their views and proposals, including provincial government representatives. The politicians should not fight to block certain witnesses from coming forward. The committee must be exposed to the most competent of experts, if we are to get this right.

The committee proceedings should also be televised for the benefit of the public. As well, the committee should examine whether the Canadian Government, in a national pandemic, should not lay down a robust nation-wide plan, with the cooperation of the Provinces, so as to harmonize standards and goals. Many have been critical of the checker board approach that has been taken across the breath of our nation in combatting the coronavirus. In other words, do we require a united Team Canada approach?

Second, based on the input, the committee would draft and release a public report with specific recommendations on how the next crisis can be better tackled. This will no doubt spur additional debate in Parliament and across the country, thus generating more thoughtful evidence and options. Moreover, each party leader should be expected to embrace the key proposals in their respective party policy platforms. We don’t want, nor can we afford, such a report gathering dust on some bookshelf.

Third, all political parties must commit to following the prevailing scientific and health evidence during any future pandemic. This simply has to be at the center of any public action plan, despite how painful the truth may be to public policy makers. One only has to look at the province of Ontario, during this third phase of Covid-19, to understand the ramifications of free wheeling it.

Fourth, in any future calamity, political parties must refrain from playing political gamesmanship as they develop a strategic plan. Of course, politicians will disagree and offer alternative solutions, but this needs to be done in a constructive manner. Differences of opinion should only be in the best interests of the country and not, to further any political ambition. After all, a successful response to a national crisis must be all about the welfare of our nation and its people, and not its political entities.

Furthermore, the government of the day must establish a working group of political representatives from all parties, in order to consider advice from beyond government ranks, and ensure that everyone is informed of all the details and circumstances, as soon as they break. Full transparency of information and facts is critical, as ignorance will end up costing us dearly.

Finally, we Canadian citizens also have an obligation. If governments are to base their decisions on scientific evidence, then the public must respect and obey government protocols. It’s about civic duty. If we are to be truly ‘in this together’, then there can’t be exceptions to the rules. Surely, a public health crisis must insist that everyone plays by the same rules. And failure to do so, should have significant consequences.

Personally, I would go one step further. If vaccines are deemed to be the solution, then I would make them mandatory. No ifs, ands, or buts! The only exception would be people who produce a valid medical certificate for why they can’t take a shot in the arm.

This suggestion will strike some as extreme. But in a crisis where people are potentially transmitters of the disease, this measure is just common sense. It safeguards the individual, while respecting the health and safety of one’s fellow citizen. Is that not the definition of all of us ‘pulling together’?

In closing, dealing with a global pandemic is no easy feat. We see how difficult and complex this has been in Canada, and around the world. The images of a suffering and chaotic India, for example, are heartbreaking. As a global community, we must learn well the lessons from our battles with Covid-19, and execute the solutions they dictate,  if we are to have the chance of quickly defeating the next invisible enemy.

When Winston Churchill was working to build the United Nations after WWII, he famously said; “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. So true!

Now, the very same applies to us today.

Will we be up for it?

The Hon. Sergio Marchi served as a Canadian Member of Parliament, Minister, and Ambassador.