Hershell Ezrin: The Pandemic’s Ongoing Effects on Politics

By Hershell Ezrin

There is no vaccination on the horizon to immunize Canadian politics from the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

In the Groundhog Day existence that passes for our daily reality, Canadians are surrounded by a singular focus commanding all our attention.

The media inundates us with pandemic stories about COVID-19 variants, third waves and all manner of vaccine information overload. 

The pandemic’s disruption has altered the conduct of business, civil society, education, medicine, religion, culture and even simple family social gatherings.

Working online from home, mask-wearing, curb-side pick-up and home delivery, physical distancing, zoom funerals and medical appointments and contactless payment systems have come to dominate our psyche.

That is why there should be no surprise to the fundamental changes that the pandemic is inflicting upon the nature of politics and political theatre.  

The chaotic Newfoundland and Labrador election has been postponed yet again. On Feb. 12, the province’s Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk had cancelled all in-person voting in the provincial election — a day before it was originally scheduled — because authorities imposed lockdown measures across the province to stop a COVID-19 outbreak.

The latest deadline for returning mail-in ballots for the delayed provincial election is March 25. This pushes out the postmark deadline that Chaulk had previously established as March 12; before that, he had said ballots must be returned by March 5, which was an extension of the original March 1 deadline.

The popularity of numerous provincial Premiers seems tied exclusively to vaccine acquisition and distribution, the application of lockdown brakes and colour-coded regional priorities that have come to dominate the public’s understanding of policy choices.

Jason Kenney, Scott Moe and even Ontario’s Doug Ford are facing the havoc that management of the pandemic’s impacts has wreaked on their political popularity.

Will the Trudeau government be credited for a bold economic response to the initial pandemic or will its political future be condemned by a slow vaccine rollout?

The pandemic has also redefined the focus of federal-provincial relations. Recall the ongoing debate about who is to blame for vaccine acquisition (witness Manitoba’s attacks on the federal government for a unified national acquisition policy), vaccine distribution plans (Doug Ford criticizing the national vaccine table for its changed guidance about the acceptability of Astra-Zeneca dosage for seniors), the unwillingness to adopt emergency measures nationally in the face of the pandemic or the absence of a proper paid sick leave policy to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace (Ontario denying its responsibility and blaming the federal government.)

Even when certain provincial demands remain constant, such as seeking more health care funding, the pandemic becomes the rationale for urgent increases beyond the emergency funds already disbursed. 

Political issues that once seemed important have receded into the background.

Two years without a federal budget appears less relevant as long as the pandemic support lifeline remains in place.

Potential scandals at different levels of government appear to gain little traction in the public mind (Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s explanation of his delayed reaction to the Vance whistleblower, Premier Ford’s unsubstantiated attack on “the vaccine queue jumping” of an Indigenous MPP, let alone the rerun of the WE Charity episode in front of another parliamentary enquiry.)

Opposition parties find it difficult to attract much concerted attention or momentum, with most media attention focused on the steady diet of pandemic news from the government or its scientific experts.

Impressive achievements that could normally create or change political momentum going into the next political election cycle are quickly discarded on the garbage heap of yesterday’s news.

The NDP in Ontario delivered a comprehensive environmental program, only to attract cursory attention.

How else can you explain the non-reaction to the Ontario Liberals’ (currently not an accredited party at Queen’s Park) remarkable fundraising achievement to pay off a $10 million campaign debt more than a year before the next election. 

Pre-pandemic, such achievements would have attracted much media speculation and public interest about the implications for political change or the nature of political discourse.

The pandemic continues to profoundly affect the practice of politics in other ways as well.

Virtual participation, including voting in parliamentary sessions, committees and dealing with constituents, has become the norm. Advocacy and lobbying will never be the same.

The same strict lockdown politicians have imposed upon the public for health and safety reasons limits their ability to meet and greet constituents, campaign or hold events for fundraising.

The connectivity offered by political parties has become less relevant. The role of volunteers in face to face canvassing is changing; the capability of new and unknown candidates to get acquainted with constituents will be severely tested.

Despite all the advances on the vaccination front and the prospects of some easing of lockdowns, the emergence of pandemic variants suggests a third wave is coming.

Ultimately, will the fear of future pandemic spreads force fundamental changes to the voting process itself (expansion of absentee ballots, expanded mail in or electronic voting) and how will those potential changes impact campaigning and voter turnout?

The script for the long-term implications on politics is being drafted. The only certainty is to expect extensive change as the new political normal.

Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.