Looking for a villain isn’t accountability

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While the Conservatives are clamouring for a return to Parliament next week for “accountability sessions,” there are nevertheless some warning signs that perhaps what kind of accountability they are looking for is a bit suspect.  While there is little doubt that some of this demand for a quick return is a desire to get some screen time and to start replenishing their stockpiles of angry clips for social media that they can deploy in future shitposts – once it’s no longer considered quite so crass as to attack a government that is up to its neck in trying to keep the economy afloat from a global pandemic – there is a need for parliamentary accountability, provided it’s done properly.

Part of why we need a skeleton parliament to be sitting is to pass emergency measures as they come up, and they have been coming up practically weekly.  It’s important that the original proposals and the amendments be made in public, so that there is a record, even if the negotiations for those changes happens behind-the-scenes.  That’s fair, but there needs to be a public record and a proper legislative process rather than to pass all stages in one fell swoop.  That’s doing a disservice to the democracy that prime minister Justin Trudeau keeps insisting he respects.

“Conservatives are not asking for full Parliament to sit April 20,” Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen tweeted late Thursday evening.  “We want a reduced number of MP’s for a reduced number of days each week to ask the [government] questions and offer solutions to help Canadians deal with the COVID-19 crisis.”

Asking questions is important.  Being seen to offer solutions is slightly more performative than what has been happening during the daily teleconferences between MPs and government officials, which Elizabeth May assured Canadians during her C-15 speech last Saturday was getting results, but I can understand why the opposition wants to be seen to offer these suggestions in public, beyond their daily press releases that make the same demands over and over again.  That said, if we had seen the original text of the emergency bills that had passed, we would have a better idea of what the opposition parties had offered as amendments and what kind of deal was hammered out in back rooms (be they real backrooms or virtual ones over a teleconference).

This having been said, I have concerns about where the search for accountability is going, based on what the Conservatives has been raising, particularly when it comes to the World Health Organization and the information it received from China.  The Conservatives have been going two-fold on this particular line of attack – and some of it has very much been an attack.  One of the lines is an attempt to find a villain behind this, which is both foolhardy when we’re dealing with a novel virus that we had very little information on three months ago, and smacks of Trumpism, which you would think the Conservatives would want to run far away from.  (Unfortunately, as we saw with erstwhile leadership candidate Marilyn Gladu this week, repeating his false claims about cures and demands to open up the economy, Trumpism does exist within the party).

The other reason for the line of attack is to try and make it look that they had been right all along when they made demands for measures that were against sound public health practice at the time, starting with closing the borders to certain countries.  The problem with this kind of revisionist history – and it very much has been revisionist history as they have absolutely claimed that the government “listened” to them, albeit belatedly, when they did eventually close the borders to non-Canadians – is that it doesn’t track with what actually happened with the infection in Canada.  Had we closed the borders to China when the Conservatives demanded (a fairly useless gesture considering that Wuhan had already been locked down by Chinese authorities and Canada was negotiating to get our nationals out and back to Canada), it wasn’t until there were outbreaks in Iran and Italy that the whole world was alerted to the severity of the disease.  Closing the borders to China would not have helped those who were exposed in Iran, Italy, or elsewhere, and then brought it back to Canada asymptomatically, before anyone in the world quite grasped the scope of the problem.

This isn’t to let China off the hook – it very much looks like they provided false data to the WHO in an attempt to make things look better than they were, but we also have to remember that it’s not like there were comparator countries that the WHO could turn to, and that most of their recommendations were in line with established public health recommendations that were developed post-SARS.  Closing borders were proven not to work, and we know that people get around those border closures and then don’t report when they’re symptomatic because they’re afraid of getting in trouble for evading the border closure.  There were good reasons to follow the WHO’s guidelines, and even if they were insufficient, we can’t ignore the context that this virus was unlike anything we have been used to in previous outbreaks over the past century.

With this in mind, we need to remember that when we do get a resumption of Parliament in whatever form it is – preferably a skeleton parliament because a “virtual” one is not desirable and would be one giant gong show – it will be important to hold ministers accountable for decisions that were made, not public health officials for the advice that they were giving.  And while it may be tempting to try and call for blood as a way of satiating the frustration that everyone is feeling for the situation we’re in, let’s remember that we are in an unprecedented circumstance, and that accountability doesn’t have to mean demanding resignations.  We can be mature about the exercise if we choose to be.

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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