Pandemic leadership, recovery plans to be front and centre in election campaign

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Procurement Minister Anita Anand is loathe to talk much about the low points of Canada's vaccine procurement campaign last winter.

Those days when Pfizer and Moderna were calling to say Canada's shipments of vaccines were delayed or not coming at all. The weeks when vaccine rates in Israel, the United Kingdom or the United States were soaring and Canadians were wondering why they were being left behind.

But the 54-year-old former law professor will pause to acknowledge that with Canada now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, things are a lot less tense around her office.

"My days are still very busy, because we have not finished our vaccine procurements as of yet, but I can say that I am sleeping better at night because of the strides we have made in procurement," Anand said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

She said she is eager to show voters what those strides were, from overcoming the global supply crunch on personal protective equipment, to securing millions of rapid tests, and now being among the most vaccinated countries in the world.

"When you ask me whether I'm prepared to defend that record, yes, I am.," Anand said, her voice steely.

But the Conservatives and the NDP will be telling voters that Canada was slow to acknowledge the threat COVID-19 posed, was not prepared with the personal protective equipment needed and was months slower than many other countries to get vaccines in the door.

Charles Bird, the managing principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto and a former provincial Liberal campaign director in Ontario, said there is no doubt that the pandemic is going to be top of mind for voters "for the simple reason that it's not over."

But Bird and other political strategists say for all parties the key factor in winning the pandemic vote will be where we go from here, rather than what they did so far.

Bird said the Liberals will want the ballot question to be "who do you trust to see us through what's left of the pandemic and into a recovery?" while the Conservatives will want it to be "who is going to pay for all of this?"

Shakir Chambers, also a principal at Earnscliffe, and a former conservative political adviser in Ottawa and Ontario, said while there will be a lot of finger pointing between parties about decisions made during the pandemic, most voters "don't have very long memories."

"What they're looking at now as we are in this kind of post-pandemic world, (is) what is the strategy to bring us out of out of an economic slump and focus on economic recovery?" he said. "I think, again, whoever that group is that presents that better picture will likely come into this election as a victor."

There are already signs of where the two biggest parties will differ on this front. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his mantra "build back better" is focusing on rebuilding an economy paying particular attention to those hurt most by the pandemic's economic downturn.

Women, people of colour and Indigenous people bore the brunt of the job losses and added child care from school and daycare closures. Trudeau recently signed billion-dollar child care agreements with nearly all the provinces, inked the first provincial pharmacare agreement with Prince Edward Island, and committed money for capital improvements in long-term care to multiple provinces.

O'Toole is pushing what he calls "Canada's Recovery Plan," which includes policies to expand broadband coverage and tax credits to make Canada innovative again. He would scrap Trudeau's child-care deals favour of a refundable tax credit of between $4,500 and $6,000 per child, aiming to cover up to 75 per cent of child-care costs for low-income families.

Both are arguing about who will do more to restore the life sciences industry, decimated by previous Conservative and Liberal governments alike.

Chambers said O'Toole will also have to fend off a Liberal attempt to convince voters who may be irritated by how their provincial government handled the pandemic that the federal Conservatives would be the same.

Seven provincial premiers are conservative or lead right-leaning governments, and many are being pummelled in the polls for their handling of the pandemic. While the federal government has a mandate for borders and bought vaccines, decisions on everything from school closures and business restrictions to mask mandates fall squarely in provincial space.

"I think what Justin Trudeau is trying to do is he's trying to conflate all conservative politicians as one," said Chambers. "And so if people in a certain province don't like a certain leader or conservative premier, let's just paint Erin O'Toole with that brush."

Some experts have said Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are likely to remain civil, at least as long as there isn't a COVID-19 surge, as the federal Liberal leader tries to project calm as the politician best able to keep Canadians safe.

Bird said O'Toole's job there could be made harder as Canadians are watching the partisan divide in the pandemic response in the United States, where Republican governors in some states aren't just refusing to implement statewide restrictions, they're preventing local health officials from doing it too.

"A lot of Canadians are keenly aware and completely freaked out at what's happening south of the border," said Bird.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2021.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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