Are we all in this together? The political perils of pandemic travel

COVID-19 is a threat that requires collective action. Unfortunately, some Canadian politicians are demonstrating how hard it can be to marshal a response to such challenges.

The good news is that almost every elected provincial and federal figure in Canada appears to have avoided travelling outside the country during the holidays. The bad news is that the exceptions number more than one or two; at last count, a dozen or so of our elected representatives wantonly disregarded official calls for Canadians to avoid unnecessary travel. And some of those exceptions have been particularly flagrant.

Ontario’s finance minister skipped off to St. Barts, the tropical island recently written up by the Daily Mail as a pandemic refuge-of-choice for the rich and famous. Rod Phillips was nice enough to leave behind a series of photos of himself visiting local businesses and eating pancakes on his front porch, along with a handsomely staged video wishing his constituents a happy holiday. But he was compelled by public opinion to cut his trip short, and was promptly relieved of his senior cabinet post upon returning home.

Rod Phillips at Toronto’s Pearson Airport upon his return from an ill-considered overseas holiday. (CBC)

In Alberta, the list of AWOL MLAs and political staff who vacationed abroad — all from the governing United Conservative Party — has grown by the day. But Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was unwilling initially to punish anyone for their wandering. Only after absorbing several days of mounting outrage did Kenney realize that firing or demoting half a dozen members of his own team — including his own chief of staff — was the only acceptable response.

Federally, five MPs are known to have left the country in December. Three of those MPs — the NDP’s Niki Ashton and Liberals Kamal Khera and Sameer Zuberi — did so because of family members who were sick or who recently had passed away. Such cases can be distinguished from those who simply wanted to go somewhere warm or different.

Liberal MP Kamal Khera rises in the House of Commons on Friday, October 20, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Do as we say, not as we do

But it still might be hard to defend such travel to any Canadian who hasn’t been able to see an ill or dying loved one — or who simply refrained from such travel because they thought it was the responsible thing to do. The NDP saw fit to revoke Ashton’s critic portfolio and both Liberals resigned their parliamentary secretary assignments.

In the upper chamber, Conservative Senate leader Don Plett was compelled on Monday to acknowledge that he’d slipped off to Mexico for a few days. He’d apparently planned to stay longer but, upon reflection, realized that his decision to travel was unwise (Plett’s period of reflection in Mexico may have coincided with news breaking in Canada of Rod Phillips’ whereabouts).

Conservative Senator Don Plett of Manitoba. (Chris Rands/CBC)

The challenge in every collective effort involving a large group is that it can be very easy — and tempting — for any one person to opt out. And each case of someone shirking responsibility makes it easier for others to do likewise. And if enough people opt out, everyone suffers.

Climate change is a classic example. In fact, when it comes to the fight against global warming, various politicians and critics have argued for years that Canadians should not feel compelled to act until other countries (the United States or China or India or Saudi Arabia or whatever) are prepared to do as much or more.

Collective effort vs. private privilege

COVID-19 presents a real-world example of how shortsighted that sort of thinking is. But it’s also a reminder of how easily a collective effort — even in the presence of a very immediate danger — can fray and fragment.

Political leaders can facilitate or organize collective efforts in at least two ways. The first way is the simplest: they can model and promote the desired behaviour. When that isn’t enough, they can implement rules or incentives that require or promote that collective action.

The politicians who have gone astray in recent weeks obviously have trampled all over the first approach — and those who are in government can be accused of hypocrisy for failing to live up to the requests and warnings health officials have been relaying to the general public. There is also some irony in the fact that the largest number of travelling politicians seems to be associated with an Alberta government led by a premier who likes to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility.

Public will was always going to be critical to controlling COVID-19. No government (among the Western democracies, at least) can hope to police the individual behaviour of millions of citizens. But governments are still expected to do everything they can to keep the number of infections as low as possible, and to bring the public along with that effort.

The Alberta and Ontario governments have both struggled with imposing pandemic restrictions on the public. Their own members may have just demonstrated that clear signals and stringent standards are necessary at this moment. But their travelling colleagues may also have made it much harder to implement new closures and restrictions — just at a moment when increasing infections and a virulent new strain of the virus make dramatic action all the more necessary.

The travel scandals have damaged individual and party political fortunes over the last few weeks. Far more worrisome is the injury these footloose politicians may have done to the public’s willingness to share the burden of containing the pandemic. At the very least, they have gifted message fodder to the “anti-maskers” and other fringe voices who delight in opposing public health restrictions.

It might be pleaded that politicians are just like everyone else. Just as the vast majority of Canadians generally abide by best practices and public guidelines, so too do the vast majority of the nation’s political leaders. Some Canadians have strayed; so have some of their elected officials.

But the actions of political leaders resonate. At a moment when leadership is incredibly important, a dozen public officeholders have betrayed the public’s expectations and trust. And that matters now not only because of the pandemic, but because of another collective action problem: the need to protect and reinforce democracy and the political process against cynicism, distrust and division. Alongside climate change and COVID-19, political dysfunction has been one of the defining challenges of the era.

A dozen Canadian politicians leaving the country — most of them for leisure — in the midst of a global pandemic doesn’t doom the collective challenge of upholding liberal democracy. Nor will it completely undo a national effort to combat a health crisis.

But it doesn’t help.

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