Fraser Macdonald: Poppy and mask politics are petty: Keep your eye on the ball, folks

Five years from now, Canadians won’t remember that Patty Hajdu took off her mask at the airport or that Whole Foods had a three-hour PR meltdown.  

By: Fraser Macdonald

As Remembrance Day drew near, the Canadian political and media class geared up to engage in the annual sport of Poppy Politics.

With last year’s most valuable player Don Cherry off the field, the star of this year’s game so far is Whole Foods. For nearly three hours, the highbrow grocery chain held firm on a policy of not letting employees wear a poppy in store. Ontario Premier Doug Ford was quick to respond, promising legislation to ban the poppy ban. Doug Ford: 1, overzealous grocery chain: 0.

This series made quite a nice sequel to another political point-and-shoot that so many have been playing throughout the pandemic: Who Forgot Their Mask? The Liberals recently potted an embarrassing own goal when Health Minister Patty Hajdu was spotted without a mask in Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Not to be outdone, many Tories have been caught failing to mask up appropriately.

Fear not. This isn’t a column about poppies or mask politics. It’s about priorities.

Of course, we can respect the symbol of remembrance without politicizing it. And yes, it’s maddening and hypocritical when we’re lectured by people who don’t follow their own rules. Political partisans are landing blows. Throughout the pandemic each side has racked up quite a score against the others.

The problem is that we’re keeping score in the small-ball games of Who Forgot Their Mask? and Poppy Politics. Justin Trudeau probably doesn’t mind having the focus elsewhere, because he’s playing a different game altogether.

While we squabble over who failed to follow the (often contradictory) public health rules, governments across the country are making critical decisions about our fiscal future and the powers of the state and its relationship to the people, largely without either public discussion or parliamentary debate. The distraction of parochial politics is allowing these decisions to be made in the dark.

Scan any newspaper today and you’ll find no shortage of nail-biting stories about Trump vs. Biden, and where every last electoral college vote will go, despite the outcome having been clear for days. What you won’t see is much substantive coverage of the fact that — with only lip service parliamentary debate and minimal public discussion — we have record deficits, Second World War-level spending, and are on track to double the national debt in 18 months. 

If you’re looking hard, you might notice some coverage about the fact that Canada has the highest deficit (as a percentage of GDP) in the G20, and the highest unemployment in the G7. We’re spending at the level of a fully mobilized war economy during the Second World War, yet Canadians haven’t had a say in any of this. 

The Trudeau government hasn’t passed a budget since March 2019, smashing the record for the longest time a Parliament has sat without a budget. We’ll soon hit another milestone — the longest time between budgets in Canadian history.

The average person, and even the average informed voter, is much more likely to be aware of the latest personal political slip-up than they are of the hard economic facts — like Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio. We began 2020 at 30.9 per cent (and trending downwards) and we now know that number will increase to at least 49.1 per cent (and trending upwards, quickly).

But the public discourse is focused on the minutiae of personal politics. The media and political class are suffering from Shiny Object Syndrome at the worst possible time. We’re chasing the latest clickbait story when the big (debt) picture is unfolding right in front of us. 

So what’s the remedy for this? The Liberals are a lost cause, quite content to play this smoke-and-mirrors game, threaten an election rather than allow parliament to function, and spend our money like their political lives depend on it. Why not? They’re getting away with it right now.

They showed their hand early when they tried to use emergency legislation to give the government unchecked taxation and spending power until December 2021. We were told we needed to fight COVID-19 like we fought the Second World War. But if this is a wartime economy, where is the wartime coalition that puts Canadians’ health and future prosperity ahead of partisanship? All we got was the spending.

The NDP, broke since the last election, seem to think the path to winning is spineless obeisance to Trudeau. They’re less focused on the sideshows and more on keeping the lights on. The biggest media impact Jagmeet Singh has made since the pandemic started was riding a skateboard drinking cranberry juice.

It’s hard to blame the Conservatives for throwing a punch when “Woke Foods” and Trudeau ministers drop the ball. New to the job, Erin O’Toole showing he’s a fighter to the partisan faithful is important. But the brand O’Toole ought to project is that he’s a thoughtful, ideas-driven leader who can rise above petty politics when the occasion calls for it. 

With the Trump sideshow finally nearing an end, now is certainly that time — an opportunity for the Conservatives to start punching with policy. Canadians are looking for substance amongst the smoke and mirrors, and this is the time to show it. Raising the level of debate here would be a great way for O’Toole to introduce himself to many Canadians. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and volunteered on Erin O’Toole’s leadership campaign.)

Five years from now, Canadians won’t remember that Patty Hajdu took off her mask at the airport or that Whole Foods had a three-hour PR meltdown.  

But if these trends progress, Canadians in 2025 will be poorer, higher taxed, suffering from diminished economic growth, and have relatively less freedom than they did before this all started as a result of decisions being made today while distracted by trivialities.

I’m tired of a lot of aspects of pandemic life, but the thing I’m most tired of is sanctimonious moralizing over small-ball politics while the decisions that matter are being made in the dark.

Fraser Macdonald is a lawyer and public affairs consultant based in Toronto, and a Fellow at the Canadian Freedom Institute @CanFreedomInst

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