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McNeil moves to new crisis, taking attitude with him

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Republished from Starr’s Point with Richard Starr’s kind permission. Originally published on May 18, 2020

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – There was an interesting piece in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail dealing with autocrats and the pandemic. Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev, authors of The Light that Failed: A Reckoning found a correlation between populist autocrats and galloping rates of COVID-19. There is compelling circumstantial evidence citing Trump and Putin, as well as Bolsonaro of Brazil, Lukashenko of Belarus and Ortega of Nicaragua, members of what’s been called the Ostrich Alliance. They are all sticking heads in the sand, and like Trump, meeting the current pandemic with “magical thinking, cowardly blame shifting and a weirdly dazed immobility.”

The authors contend that authoritarian leaders thrive on crises. “Yet not all crises are amenable to authoritarian solutions…the crises authoritarians most enjoy are those they have manufactured themselves, ones that permit them to showcase their imagined strengths.” Pre-COVID-19 Putin boosted his popularity by creating a crisis through annexation of Crimea. Trump has conjured up his caravans of migrants, and The Wall to fend them off.

COVID-19 is a different sort of crisis, one that requires co-operation with others, they argue. “Flashy stunts by men of action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.” This may explain why the populist autocrats have failed to keep their countries safe from high rates of infection and mortality. It may also be why countries that have shown some of the lowest mortality rates from COVID -New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Germany – are led not by “men of action” but by women.

Holmes and Krastev did not make that argument. Nor did the piece deal with authoritarian China, where reported rates of infection and death from COVID  are low and on the decline. But culture, not tyrannical rule, may explain China – and the jury’s still out on the reliability of that country’s numbers.

In any case, based on current events, the thesis rings true – the success of authoritarians is based on their ability to create an adversary and present themselves as the only one capable to defeating the threat. And coming across the Globe article in the wake of Friday’s Nova Scotia COVID-19 update got me thinking about how Nova Scotia’s autocrat-lite Premier has handled the pandemic.

Made up crisis

Like the more notorious examples cited by Holmes and Krastev, Stephen McNeil’s reign has so far been dominated by his handling of a crisis of his own creation.

Upon taking office, he inflated the size of the budget deficit with some accounting moves, blamed the sea of red ink on public sector workers and decreed balanced budgets as a political holy grail. He successfully rode that pony for almost seven years, touting his willingness to make the tough decisions. But now the pandemic has rendered obsolete the political salience of government austerity, balanced budgets and bashing of public sector workers.

McNeil needs a new raison d’être, and with remarkable dexterity he has found one with COVID-19, moving smartly from the manufactured fiscal crisis to the real crisis presented by the pandemic. Unlike Trump, Putin and the Ostrich Alliance, McNeil has been in the forefront of the fight against the virus, consigning his health minister to the boondocks and creating the folksy “stay the blazes home” admonition.

Although he has picked a new adversary, McNeil has, as the blazes meme suggests, retained the “my way or the highway” approach, which was on full display during last Friday’s COVID-19 briefing. After the ritual acknowledgement of four more deaths at Northwood, bringing the tragic total to 49, the presentation moved to the good news – permission from on high for Nova Scotians to expand their social circles and form two-household bubbles.

None of the reporters who had the opportunity to ask questions noted that during the COVID briefing two days earlier, Dr. Robert Strang had reservations about the bubble idea, noting quite reasonably that bubbles force people (such as those in my extended family) to make stressful choices between friends and relatives. Last Wednesday, the province’s chief medical officer preferred to “loosen some of the restrictions around types of gatherings and numbers allowed.” But on Friday it was bubbles all the way.

Perhaps we will learn more in the days ahead about the change of heart on household bubbles. Was this a local version of one of those Trump-Fauci moments, when the U.S. president overrides the expert advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top medical official? We may never know, but one thing is already clear – McNeil is no slouch when it comes to dismissing the views of experts, as he demonstrated again on Friday when discussion moved from the pandemic to other issues of public concern.

No other voices

A reporter asked whether he would agree to a request from most of Dalhousie’s law faculty to call an independent inquiry into last month’s mass shooting, McNeil said, no, “with all due respect” to the 33 law professors and proceeded to explain how under the Canadian constitution, guns and the RCMP are under federal jurisdiction. (Never mind that in Nova Scotia, the RCMP operates as a provincial police force, under contract with the provincial government).

The Premier also showed off his expertise on parliamentary tradition when a reporter asked about convening legislative committee meetings, a request of both opposition parties for more than a month now. It has been pointed out that despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, other assemblies, in particular the one in Ottawa, have organized themselves to enable the opposition parties to question the government’s handling of the pandemic. In New Brunswick, they’ve even established an all-party COVID-19 committee.

But according to McNeil, these arrangements are only necessary because there are minority governments in both Ottawa and Fredericton. In Nova Scotia, where the government has a one-seat advantage over the opposition parties and independents, McNeil seems to believe there’s no need to hear from 49 per cent of the elected members of the legislature. And if the silence of the health minister is anything to go by, the remaining 49 per cent of MLAs – Liberals not named Stephen McNeil – are also surplus to requirements.

The Premier sees no problem with shutting down legislative committees until at least next fall, and he just knows most of us agree with him on that. “To be perfectly honest with you, that is not on the forefront of most Nova Scotians’ minds,” he told the reporter who raised the committee issue.

In response to McNeil’s indifference, the NDP has come up with a nifty catchphrase – democracy is an essential service. Time and tide permitting, I’ll have further on some of the many issues that, in the interests of democracy, require wider discussion than that envisaged by our all-knowing Premier.

Richard Starr is a former journalist, civil servant, political hack and seventh generation Nova Scotian. He is devoting his retirement to family, volunteer activities and writing about subjects that interest him and, he hopes, others at Starr’s Point, a Nova Scotia blog where facts matter, where this post was originally published.His most recent book “Equal as Citizens: the tumultuous and troubled history of a great Canadian idea” is about the history of equalization and the fiscal transfer system in Canada and came out in 2014.

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