Now more than ever we need partisanship

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With the coronavirus raging, we are hearing predictable calls for people to put petty partisanship aside and let government work its magic.  Which suggests that many people fail to grasp what partisanship is for: to expose that government is not magic.

I don’t doubt that in an emergency government needs to act and act fast.  And I realize it’s not going to get everything right; a pandemic is no time for paralysis through analysis.  I don’t know whether the massive self-quarantining will turn out to have been overkill but it’s a chance I’m willing to take.  Just drop the groceries at the door and run.

The thing is, we don’t need to suspend partisanship to let government to use its emergency powers.  It’s doing it as we speak (remotely).  But when the state takes drastic action it very often bungles the main task or inflicts unnecessary collateral damage.  Which is why in a free society we don’t stop asking questions.  Including in Parliament.  By video monitor if necessary.

Someone in Maclean’s just wrote “it is time for the Prime Minister to consider convening a national unity cabinet that includes Andrew Scheer from the CPC and Jagmeet Singh from the NDP.  Bringing them into decision making to ensure the government is getting input and insight from Canadians they are otherwise disconnected from.”

Phooey.  Doing so would just implicate them in the current decisions, good or bad, that make cabinet such an ineffective check on modern prime ministers.  The right way to get input and insight is to have people working hard to find flaws in existing policy and propose better alternatives.

I’m not defending the kind of pettiness that famously means 90% of politicians give the other 10% a bad name.  It was never a good idea because angry and stupid doesn’t fix minor problems any more than major ones.  But intelligent and credible criticism of those in power is never more important than in a crisis.

Consider that in the early brutal slogging in World War I a political crisis in Britain over a shortage of shells driven by politicians and the press began by forcing Herbert Asquith into a coalition with, and ended by forcing him to resign in favour of, David Lloyd George.  Now you can readily imagine the arguments against “partisanship” or indeed publicity of any kind in the context of 1915.

The war had begin badly, with the Allies almost losing in September 1914 before the “Miracle on the Marne”.  Then the Germans dug in on all the best defensive territory, and British and French attempts to dislodge them from much of northwestern France and almost all of Belgium produced a series of bloody debacles.  What a time to give aid and comfort to the enemy by discussing out loud that your war effort was a mess.  Unlike COVID-19, the Germans could overhear the discussion and gain aid and comfort, even information.

It happened anyway and rightly so.  Because the alternative was to ignore the problem instead of fixing it, and lose the war because you were sending men to die with the wrong kinds of weapons and not enough of them.

Recall please that “partisanship” is not just a matter of opposition politicians yapping inanely.  It’s also a matter of those in power making inane soothing sounds.  And the idea is that the inanity cancels out and we citizens discover the truth.  (As Madison famously put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”)

Right now we have governments essentially locking us all in our houses and hurling money at us.  A surprising number of places including San Francisco have forbidden all but essential trips.  And it’s a good idea to act first and debate later.  But we must have the debate.

To see why, let’s fast-forward from the Ypres Salient in 1915 to Beijing in 2020.  You see, we’re hearing that the virus has been vanquished in China by the mighty Xi Jinping and his lovely Communist Party, which abolished partisanship long ago by brute force.  Any questions and you’re under arrest.

Nothing that regime told us at the beginning was true.  Nor is their rumour that it’s an American biological warfare blunder.  So what’s with the infection curve not flattening but dropping right down to zero?  In a country of 1.4 billion people, many of them elderly, it shot up to 80,000 then stopped, um, dead?

It could be true.  But how would we or anyone know in a society that ruthlessly suppresses dissent?  And while nobody is suggesting ruthlessly suppressing dissent here there is a surprising inclination to smother it with a feather mattress, to borrow a phrase from Churchill.

What’s to dissent from?  Well, for starters, I have seen arguments that governments have panicked, that the actual mortality rate from this pandemic is low enough that without drastic measures the United States might have experienced about 3.5 million infections and 10,000 deaths “buried within the noise of the estimate of deaths from ‘influenza-like illnesses’.”

John Ioannidis, who made that argument, said “A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza.  If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational.  It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat.  Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.”

We don’t know if it’s the true death rate.  Yet.  But if so, and it turns out all that quarantining and panic spending by governments was an overreaction, shouldn’t we find out and start winding it up quickly instead of giving all politicians a vested interest in defending ongoing emergency measures?  Remember, poverty, loneliness and despair kill people too.

As for the spending, governments are still kind of doing the “stimulus” booga booga while kind of grudgingly acknowledging that a lot of people out of work means less wealth is created so in rushing money to those facing short-term financial crisis, they’re not creating it out of thin air, they’re redistributing it.  And if so, that $83 billion or so Justin Trudeau just handed us will have to be repaid at some point by the government, requiring $83 billion in taxes.

Someone needs to ask pointedly who’s going to pay for all this mess.  Those who hand it out and say look I saved you aren’t the most likely candidates.

Human beings being what they are, the people in charge ideologically as well as politically have a tendency to want to shoosh anyone who might question their sublime and effective wisdom.  (Including that supposedly high-minded Maclean’s piece whose idea of non-partisanship included dumping on Peter McKay and Erin O’Toole for “sneering, xenophobic and hyper-partisan cheap shots”.)  But as always with free inquiry, if the authorities are actually right then the questions will just confirm it.  And if they’re wrong, we need to know.

Never more than in a crisis, in fact.  So get on with the response, and forget the non-partisanship.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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