Politics·Analysis

The pandemic seems to be giving Canadians warm feelings about government. Can it last?

Not long ago, 'government' was something people complained about. The COVID-19 pandemic, with all the fear and economic carnage it has unleashed, seems to have triggered a warming trend in Canadians' attitudes toward governments and bureaucracies.

The bureaucracy may be turning around its reputation for inefficiency and waste — at least in the short term

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises in the House of Commons to address pandemic measures April 11, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A lot has changed in the last month — possibly even our views about the role and value of government.

In early March — just as the COVID-19 pandemic was emerging in Canada — Abacus Data presented a representative sample of Canadians with a choice between two very different statements about the efficacy of government: "Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient" or "Government provides good services that help make life better and more affordable."

The result was effectively a toss-up: 52 per cent sided with the pro-government statement, while 48 per cent took the dimmer view.

At the start of this month, with Canada deep in the throes of a public health emergency and an unprecedented economic shock, Abacus tested the two statements again. They found what appears, on its face, to be a profound shift.

In the new survey, 67 per cent of respondents leaned toward the statement that government provides good services that make life better and more affordable.

The change seems even more dramatic when compared with what Abacus Data found when it tested the two statements in May 2019. Nearly a year ago, just 44 per cent of respondents chose the pro-government statement.

There is no guarantee this feeling will last.

Catastrophe and cooperation

People have a natural tendency to rally together in moments of great uncertainty. Public support has increased for elected leaders across the western world in the initial stages of this crisis. A new sense of belief in the value of government could be connected to that same phenomenon.

A newfound appreciation for government support also might simply be linked to a personal or general understanding of just how many people need help right now.

But the past month also has likely shaken up some preconceived notions about the capacity of governments in this country.

For one thing, we're all learning just how much a government can actually spend without creating a fiscal crisis.

Over the last few years, there has been significant debate about the Trudeau government's decision to run annual budget deficits — $19 billion in each of the Liberal government's first two full fiscal years, then $14 billion in the third year.

The deficit hawks take a holiday

Taking into account the raft of emergency measures announced over the past month and an extraordinary drop in economic activity, the parliamentary budget officer's latest estimate is that the deficit for the next year will reach $184 billion. A final figure even higher than that seems entirely plausible.

But the PBO's analysis also confirms that the federal government can safely carry that amount of spending in the short-term — and no party is arguing that the federal government shouldn't, or can't afford to, spend at that level. Apparently there are few deficit hawks in the midst of a global pandemic.

That doesn't mean governments should now feel free to test the outer limits of their public spending power on a regular basis. Conservatives are still arguing against the previous deficits and are saying that the Trudeau government should have left itself a healthier balance sheet heading into this crisis.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has questioned the government's handling of a massive aid package for an economy cratered by the pandemic — but not the need for it. (Adrian/Wyld/The Canadian Press)

It remains to be seen how, if at all, this example will affect popular and political will in the medium-term. Will there been a renewed desire for frugality coming out of this crisis? Or will the discussion about what constitutes "responsible" spending be reframed by the pandemic?

The other remarkable development in Canadians' relationship with government has to do with how, and how quickly, that emergency funding has been delivered. In a very short period of time, officials and public servants have designed, created and implemented large and expensive policies that affect many Canadians. The public service has processed millions of applications for assistance and distributed billions of dollars in aid.

'The mission is clear'

That process has not been perfect. But the last few weeks still stand in marked contrast to the standard idea of bureaucracy as slow, cautious and inefficient.

"I've seen governments respond to a crisis before — not quite as big as this one. And it's a bit of a unifying experience," says Sen. Tony Dean, who used to be a senior official in the Ontario government.

"The work in a large and complex and risk-averse organization all focuses down — the mission is clear. The objectives are clear and many of the normal processes and layers and the gap between the policy people and the deputy minister and the Prime Minister's Office shortens and things get done."

There will be an opportunity, Dean suggests, for the public service to apply what was learned during this crisis to improve the work it does in normal times.

Could the example or experience of government support, and the relatively efficient delivery of that support, also change the way people think about the utility and purpose of government?

It's early days yet

It seems plausible. But it's also possible that any goodwill gained during this crisis could be wiped out by the first counter-example — a frustrating experience at a Service Canada office, or reports of a cabinet minister unnecessarily replacing the carpet in his office.

It's also far too early for any government to feel like it has succeeded at managing this crisis.

We likely are still in just the initial stages of a health crisis that will, in the best-case scenario, still leave many people dead and many others dealing with the effects of the illness.

Getting through that will require months of economic and social restrictions that will require both the public's patience and further government support.

Afterward, there will an economic recovery to manage and support.

Even if there is broad support right now for the idea that government can and should be a significant force for good, governments still have to live up to that belief.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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