Politics·Analysis

As governments grapple with COVID-19, what's the role for the opposition?

Facing a national crisis and global pandemic, opposition parties struggle to find a place for themselves.

Facing a global pandemic, opposition parties may have a hard time landing on a message

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is one of many opposition leaders across the country adopting a more collaborative, less partisan tone in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

The daily swirl of press briefings by health officials, new announcements by government leaders and reports on the latest public spaces, businesses or borders being closed leaves little opportunity for the opposition parties to get a word in.

That's assuming they have anything to say, or a platform on which to say it. Across the country, legislatures are shuttered as governments grapple with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

So what is the role of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the midst of a national crisis?

The House of Commons adjourned last week and is only scheduled to resume regular business on Apr. 20. Most provincial legislatures also have suspended sittings. Some, like those in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, are closed until further notice. The assemblies in New Brunswick and Quebec won't sit again until April (if then).

In order to pass some of the measures announced by Finance Minister Bill Morneau this week, the Liberals have agreed with the opposition parties to briefly recall Parliament and ensure that enough MPs attend to make up a quorum and pass legislation.

Ontario did the same on Thursday and Newfoundland and Labrador will follow suit this coming week.

But so far, it appears that most opposition parties across the country are looking not to oppose but to collaborate with the governing parties — and to keep partisanship to a minimum.

After weeks of speculation about whether opposition parties would gang up to defeat Premier Blaine Higgs' government in New Brunswick, a budget was passed and all parties co-operated to cram weeks' worth of legislative business into 17 minutes of voting.

In Nova Scotia, Opposition Leader Tim Houston tweeted that he would suspend "the production and release of all original content to avoid complicating public discourse." He then directed his followers to the provincial government's health website.

Marc Tanguay, Quebec Liberal house leader, had this to say of Premier François Legault: "I think, honestly, the reaction of the government has been very good."

It isn't all smiles and sunshine everywhere, of course. The Manitoba New Democrats used procedural manoeuvres to delay the introduction of Premier Brian Pallister's budget for more than a week. In Alberta, a brief moment of solidarity in the legislature between Premier Jason Kenney and NDP Leader Rachel Notley was notable only because it represented a short armistice in ongoing hostilities between their two parties.

But there is an inherent political risk in being partisan in a time of national crisis — particularly if voters think a government is doing a good job.

A Léger poll for Le Devoir found that 85 per cent of Quebecers were satisfied with how the Legault government was handling COVID-19. Only 10 per cent were dissatisfied.

Remarkably, support for Legault's performance was sky-high among supporters of the opposition parties. Roughly four-fifths of Quebecers who said they would vote for the Liberals, Parti Québécois or Québec Solidaire were satisfied with Legault's performance. In Quebec, at least, there appears to be little appetite for the opposition's traditional role of criticizing the government.

'Great spirit of co-operation'

The federal Conservatives seem to have come to the same conclusion. The party's official Twitter account is usually busy posting attacks on the Trudeau Liberals, but since the adjournment of the House it has instead tweeted information about the measures being taken by the federal government to assist Canadians during this crisis.

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer has also toned down his rhetoric significantly. In an interview on Wednesday with Vassy Kapelos, host of CBC News Network's Power and Politics, Scheer said he supports pandemic response measures that put money in the hands of Canadians and his only concern is about those who might fall through the cracks.

Asked to comment on the massive spending required by a government already in deficit, Scheer said that, while the Conservatives had warned the Liberals about the dangers of mounting debt, "we are today now in the world in which we live, so we are going to be supportive of measures to help Canadians get through this difficult time. We can have those conversations about what to do when things return to normal."

Watch: Andrew Scheer speaks to Power and Politics host Vassy Kapelos on Wednesday

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the federal government has reduced capacity to act during the COVID-19 pandemic because of previous budget deficits. 1:36

On CTV, Scheer called a conversation he had with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland "productive" and spoke of a "great spirit of co-operation".

Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, put out a statement this week expressing satisfaction with the measures the federal government has taken, although he expressed a concern about the delay in getting support to those who need it.

In a recent interview with Catherine Cullen for CBC Radio's The House, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he thinks "that people want people to work together."

"They want politicians, they want leaders to work together. They want to see collaboration. There's a common threat and it's scary," Singh said.

"I believe that the prime minister announced some really strong measures that were welcomed and good signs," he added. "But the big concern that I've heard from people is a lot of those supports won't actually reach people until the end of April or beginning of May ... That is something that is just simply untenable for too many people."

On Thursday, Singh wrote an open letter to the prime minister spelling out how the New Democrats would help the government fast-track legislation that would get support to Canadians as quickly as possible. But the NDP's tone has been a little sharper than that of the other parties in recent days, having issued statements calling on the government to take measures to help workers in the gig economy and to put "Canadians ahead of Credit Card companies."

Listen: Jagmeet Singh speaks to The House guest host Catherine Cullen on Friday

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tells The House that Canada's political parties need to collaborate during the COVID-19 pandemic — but they also need to pay close attention to Canadians' concerns. 6:32

Leaving them wanting more

It's all part of the general message coming out of opposition parties across the country at both levels of government — one that cautiously welcomes measures being taken by their opponents in office while urging them to do more, and to do it faster.

That might be the extent of the criticism most opposition parties feel Canadians are willing to hear for the time being. But how long can this détente last?

It's not unusual for opposing parties to come together in the face of a crisis.

With the Germans marching across France in August 1914, Wilfrid Laurier — then leader of the opposition — rose in the House in support of Robert Borden's Conservative government. "We raise no question," he said, "we take no exception, we offer no criticism, and we shall offer no criticism so long as there is danger at the front."

The Laurier Liberals continued collaborative relations with the government for a good part of the First World War; they didn't contest byelections for seats vacated by Conservative MPs and agreed to delay the 1916 election by a year.

When Wilfrid Laurier was leader of the Official Opposition at the beginning of the First World War, he said he would "offer no criticism so long as there is danger at the front." (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

It didn't last. Laurier and Borden broke over conscription, leading to the creation of a Unionist government that included pro-conscription Liberals and an extremely divisive wartime election in 1917. It's an example of how government and opposition can work together to deal with a national crisis — until the government decides on a course the opposition can no longer support.

We might be a long way from that kind of break. But that doesn't mean we won't hear some expressions of dissent. Earlier this week, Kenney pleaded with the federal government to "stop doing harm" and "throw us a lifeline here on additional costs" like the carbon tax.

Scott Reid, a Conservative backbench MP from eastern Ontario, wrote an open letter on Thursday proposing that a special oversight committee be formed to review the emergency legislation that the House of Commons will be asked to pass next week — a reminder to his fellow opposition members that they still have a role to play in providing parliamentary scrutiny of the government's decisions. Failure to do so, he said, would be a "gross abdication of responsibility".

The coronavirus pandemic is uncharted territory for governments. Opposition parties are also trying to figure out the best way forward. They won't always strike the right tone, provide constructive proposals or successfully make governments address flaws or gaps in their efforts to fight COVID-19.

But so far, during this crisis, it seems like political partisanship is doing some social distancing of its own.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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