Justin Trudeau – Justin Trudeau does himself no favours with the Liberals’ response to vaccine rollout
It is too early to conclude that Justin Trudeau’s government has dropped the ball on vaccines so badly that it will not — as the prime minister keeps promising — stage an effective and timely comeback.
But if the Liberals believe their own rhetoric, they might want to come up with a narrative that matches their professed confidence.
To say that the government got tangled in the thread of its own vaccine plot this week is an understatement. In substance as in form, the federal response to a growing and justifiable public chorus of calls for answers about a stalled vaccination operation fell short.
Having been assured for the better part of two months that Canada had ordered so many vaccine doses that it stood to be awash in surpluses, voters can be forgiven for being taken aback by the news that Ottawa is now looking to a fund primarily set up to give poorer countries a fairer deal for a lifeline.
Notwithstanding some of the opposition rhetoric, moderately wealthy countries other than Canada will be receiving some COVAX vaccines. New Zealand was also on this week’s distribution list.
But if the government’s intention always was to use the fund as a safety net, it could have spent less time virtue-signalling about its participation in the United Nations-led vaccine-sharing mechanism.
Moving on to form: The prime minister has a point when he insists on the necessity for governments to maintain public confidence in their efforts to manage the pandemic. But over the past few days, it is Liberal answers — or rather, non-answers — that most undermined that confidence.
On a week when the opposition leaders showed up in the House of Commons to ask the questions on everyone’s mind, the prime minister and his deputy stuck to video conferencing.
The official rationale for Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland to not grace the House of Commons with their physical presence is to lead Canadians by example by working remotely.
But with every passing day, their empty seats in the House shore up the opposition narrative that the government is missing in action. This is one case where the medium is the message.
On Thursday, only diehard Liberal believers would have been reassured by the sight of the deputy prime minister reading reheated talking points on screen in answer to opposition questions.
Her question period script was clearly not designed to either lift off the page or shed more light on the vaccine issue.
It seems that the government has forgotten that it is not just Trudeau’s from-the-porch news conferences that plays to a large audience. What happens or does not happen in the Commons does not stay on Parliament Hill.
The result is a rapidly spreading suspicion that the government is not being totally straight with Canadians — a suspicion the prime minister is said to have vehemently pushed back against over the course of his phone conference with the premiers on Thursday evening.
They may or may not have taken his word that Ottawa is sharing information with the provinces as it receives it. Given the uncertainty surrounding the vaccine deployment, Trudeau’s assurances that he knows little more than they do are unlikely to have reassured them.
On Friday, the prime minister again reiterated his conviction that the momentum of the deliveries would pick up significantly before the end of March. For the umpteenth time, he repeated that anyone who wants to be vaccinated will be able to before the end of September.
By now, Trudeau has dug that latter line very deep in the sand. If he is not as sure as he sounds, the prime minister is living dangerously, for the government is courting a crisis of confidence. An Abacus poll published on Friday reported that the ongoing vaccine travails had taken a significant toll on voters’ satisfaction with the federal government.
It also showed a Liberal drop in voting intentions.
That drop is not for now matched by an equivalent rise in Conservative fortunes. On the contrary, the proportion of voters who have a poor opinion of Erin O’Toole has steadily increased since his leadership victory.
It is easier for the Conservatives to sow doubts as to the Liberal handling of the vaccine file than to convince voters that an O’Toole government would have done better.
The risk to the Official Opposition is that in its zeal to prosecute a vulnerable government, it ends up going too far out on a limb, at cost to its own fragile credibility.
Based on the Abacus poll, a growing number of voters have come to feel let down by the Liberals over the ups and downs of the past month on the vaccine front, but are not yet looking for an alternative government. That could change.