One of the strangest statements ever by a Trudeau cabinet minister, which is a mouthful, was Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s indignant claim that you should not think about what you are doing in a crisis.
She didn’t phrase it that way. But on Oct. 23 she condemned the proposal to get actual documents about the government’s pandemic response with: “You don’t do the post-battle review in the middle of the fight.”
Of course you do. If shells start raining down on you from an unexpected angle you don’t say we’ll revisit our assumptions about the enemy’s location once we’re all dead. You scramble for answers, and new foxholes, right now. Yet the idea that you don’t examine a government response until it’s too late to fix mistakes is surprisingly common.
Thus on Oct. 26 the CBC reported that “MPs vote to open investigation into federal COVID-19 response” But the secondary headline sneered that “Conservative motion passes with support of NDP and Bloc MPs over objections of industry, health experts.”
I don’t trust this “experts say” trope. It’s a way of turning every news story into an opinion piece by finding “experts” who share the reporter’s own ideas on the specific issue, while pushing the seductive but dangerous general notion that on virtually every important issue there is a sophisticated expert consensus challenged only by yahoos.
In this case, who are these “experts” meant to be? The CBC lists “the Liberal government and multiple industry groups, companies, and other experts.” And industry groups and companies might have valid concerns about trade secrets. But “the Liberal government” is only an expert on the worth of open government in the sense of the classic “Yes Minister” line that in government, “If no one knows what you’re doing, then no one knows what you’re doing wrong.”
If it’s not a cliché it should be. And not for entirely cynical reasons. A minister perpetually busy trying to defend past foolishness is not at their desk avoiding new blunders. But reflexive secrecy is far more potent at hiding errors than fixing or preventing them.
As for the shadowy, circular “other experts” against openness, I presume they are not historians because the question whether open societies are strong or weak has been debated for many centuries, in print, in factories, and on the battlefield, with strong winning. And whether the government should tackle COVID by racing ahead with everybody on board cheering and pulling at the oars (in Hajdu-speak, “We need to stay focused on what matters now”), or by having everybody argue about where we’re going and why, certainly won’t be settled by medical experts because it’s not whether the government got some specific epidemiological point right, it’s whether anybody should be free to suggest it did not.
In some cases it obviously didn’t, since it reversed its field dramatically on closing borders and on masks without interrupting its chant about following “the science.” And of course, I don’t say it’s easy dealing with a pandemic or that having made mistakes renders them unfit to continue in office. But I do say that it is especially in a crisis that we must debate what the authorities are doing and why, which first requires that we know what they’re doing and why.
Now some cynics might raise a weary hand and say what we’ll get from this parliamentary committee isn’t calm deliberation, it’s shrill partisanship from one side and smug stonewalling from the other. And yes, some MPs won’t ask the most intelligent question they could while others, alas, will. But to dust off another cliché, democracy is the worst system of government except all the others.
It doesn’t combine the eloquence of Pericles with the depth of Aristotle. It mumbles, stumbles, snorts, and rants almost exactly as though it consisted of imperfect people elected by other imperfect people. But it gets there eventually. Which we need.
We’re in a terrible battle here. COVID-19 kills people. But if the government is bungling its response, it will kill more than it might have. And a tug of war between imperfect governors and imperfect critics prying into our responses in real time is a better way of preventing error than hiding everything, praising ourselves, and sailing straight onto a rock like some closed-minded tyranny.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.