PM’s sunny ways meet COVID’s darker days

Medicine Hat News - - COMMENTS - Su­san Dela­court Na­tional Af­fairs

Canada is des­per­ately in need of a lit­tle op­ti­mism right now and Justin Trudeau, the self-branded “sunny ways” guy, should be just the prime min­is­ter for trou­bled times.

But pol­i­tics is al­ways a dance be­tween hope and fear – dou­bly so in a pan­demic.

So Cana­di­ans were treated to two speeches from Trudeau and his gov­ern­ment on Wed­nes­day, rang­ing from op­ti­mism to pes­simism as COVID-19 re­mains dan­ger­ously on the march through this coun­try.

The speech from the throne, with its prom­ise of “brighter days” – not ex­actly sunny ways – was clearly drafted as the more hope­ful dec­la­ra­tion from Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment. But the prime min­is­ter’s tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion was about the very real fears rip­pling through the coun­try right now. There was noth­ing very sunny in it at all, re­ally.

“We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring,” Trudeau said. “I know this isn’t the news that any of us wanted to hear.”

Ba­si­cally, Trudeau was giv­ing us a dou­ble-bar­relled dose of hope and fear on Wed­nes­day, which are op­er­at­ing on dif­fer­ent time­lines.

In the short term, and there’s no sugar-coat­ing it, is fear – fear of the pan­demic caus­ing even more ill­ness, death and eco­nomic may­hem. The sunny-ways prime min­is­ter of 2015 finds him­self warn­ing of dark days in 2020 and 2021.

In the longer term, likely as far away as next sum­mer, ex­ists some kind of hope, or so the fed­eral gov­ern­ment needs us to be­lieve as fall is upon us.

The an­nounce­ment of the wage sub­sidy stretch­ing out to next sum­mer, for in­stance, is op­ti­mism and pes­simism all rolled into one. The good news is that help is there for rav­aged busi­nesses and house­hold fi­nances. The bad news is that we’re go­ing to need it un­til next sum­mer – those far-off sunny days.

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine how Cana­di­ans would have re­acted back in the sec­ond week of March if their po­lit­i­cal lead­ers an­nounced that the pan­demic would last a year. And let’s face it, that’s what Trudeau was an­nounc­ing to the coun­try on Wed­nes­day.

Hope back in the early days of the pan­demic was mea­sured in days – 14 days of iso­la­tion – then in weeks, then i months. Trudeau, we’ll re­call, waited un­til the Easter long week­end to give Cana­di­ans the hard news that life might not be back to nor­mal un­til a vac­cine was found.

Wed­nes­day night’s TV ad­dress was harder news, and it also re­volved around hol­i­days.

“It’s all too likely we won’t be gath­er­ing for Thanks­giv­ing, but we still have a shot at Christ­mas,” Trudeau said – one of the most vivid, if dis­turb­ing, lines in his TV ad­dress.

Much was made of Trudeau tak­ing ad­van­tage of two ma­jor speeches in one day to claim the lime­light for him­self and his party. But by the time both speeches were over, the need for sep­a­ra­tion of the two mes­sages was more or less clear. Their pur­poses, not to men­tion their in­tended au­di­ences, were dif­fer­ent.

This gov­ern­ment needs peo­ple to be­lieve that some hope still ex­ists for get­ting past this cri­sis over the long haul – hence the long-winded, nearly hour-long speech from the throne. More prac­ti­cally, the throne speech was a com­pli­cated bid to read the pol­i­tics of the de­bate over the pan­demic and keep the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment from fall­ing. At the time of writ­ing this col­umn, it still wasn’t clear whether that would work.

But the prime min­is­ter ob­vi­ously felt the need to per­son­ally tell Cana­di­ans that COVID-19 was as scary now as it was back in March – maybe more so.

One speech, in short, was aimed at the in­sti­tu­tions, one at in­di­vid­u­als.

Which speech will have more im­pact? It’s of­ten said that fear is a more pow­er­ful force than hope in pol­i­tics.

Cer­tainly the gov­ern­ment has made clear what is more pow­er­ful in its cal­cu­la­tions right now. Fear is the ur­gent, short-term is­sue; hope is fur­ther away. Fear is for Thanks­giv­ing; hope is for Christ­mas.

We are a few weeks away from the fifth an­niver­sary of Trudeau’s elec­tion win in 2015, when he promised he was go­ing to be the prime min­is­ter of sunny ways. That dis­po­si­tion had dis­si­pated some­what af­ter five bruis­ing years in power and last year’s elec­tion that knocked him from ma­jor­ity to mi­nor­ity.

But Trudeau’s dou­ble-bar­relled speeches to Cana­di­ans have un­der­lined just how much the pan­demic can do to op­ti­mism – at least for the short term.

Twit­ter: @su­sandela­court

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