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COMMENTARY: Opposition politicians strive for relevance in the world of coronavirus politics

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.
B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson. Richard Zussman/Global News

Pity the poor opposition politicians across Canada nursing a severe case of pandemic politics.

Their collective challenge: how do they do what opposition parties are supposed to do — oppose and criticize the government — at the same time frightened Canadians look to those in power to protect them?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, governments across Canada have been forced on to a war footing.

Suddenly, the country’s public health officials have gone from bureaucratic obscurity to superhero status. And the leaders of governments — from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to provincial premiers and territorial leaders — are now front and centre at daily news conferences with the latest dispatches from the front.

READ MORE: Trudeau, Scheer among MPs to donate pay increase to charities amid coronavirus

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The effect, in some cases, has been remarkable.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford is winning widespread praise for his daily media briefings, commitments to action and convincing displays of empathy. Ford was pitch-perfect again this week when he interrupted a media briefing to introduce and thank Christopher Desloges, his sign-language interpreter.

Even Ford’s fiercest critics admit he’s doing a good job, an amazing turnaround for a premier who saw his polling numbers slide during a difficult first year in office.

Coronavirus: Ontario sign language interpreter delivers important messages
Coronavirus: Ontario sign language interpreter delivers important messages

In British Columbia, John Horgan’s minority NDP government has achieved detente with the same bitter Liberal enemies the New Democrats vanquished in the last nasty election.

Now, as war rages against the common-foe coronavirus, Horgan’s opponents have sheathed their political swords as all parties work together.

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“This is no time for political bickering and attacks,” said Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, a medical doctor who understands the public health stakes more intimately than most.

READ MORE: B.C. premier extends state of emergency, asks people to ‘re-commit’ to COVID-19 fight

That’s not to say all political powder is being kept dry.

In Ottawa, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer teamed up with other opposition politicians to oppose a brazen Trudeau power grab. Trudeau’s proposal to govern for more than a year — including raising taxes and spending billions of public dollars — without the formal approval of parliament got Scheer’s back up.

“We will not sign a blank cheque,” Scheer decreed, forcing Trudeau to back down.

The Conservative leader showed again this week that he’s not willing to roll over and play dead during the pandemic.

“There are so many businesses out there that have seen a catastrophic decline in revenue,” Scheer said, demanding Trudeau do more to help Canadians through the crisis.

He attacked Trudeau for COVID-19 missteps and called on the Liberal government to cancel the recent increase in the federal carbon tax and refund six months’ worth of GST payments.

Coronavirus outbreak: Scheer criticizes Trudeau’s ‘confusion and delays’ in handling the COVID-19 pandemic
Coronavirus outbreak: Scheer criticizes Trudeau’s ‘confusion and delays’ in handling the COVID-19 pandemic

Scheer’s willingness to question the Trudeau effort to date was met with social-media pushback. How dare he attack the commander-in-chief while the battle is engaged!

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But I think the time is not far off when all opposition politicians will start to find their stride and realize constructive criticism should not be out of bounds, even in this crisis.

“No government has all the right answers,” Vancouver-based political strategist Mike McDonald told me.

“Any opposition has the responsibility to ask tough questions of any government in power.”

He thinks that responsibility will get weightier as the economy gets weaker and the social mood gets edgier.

In downtown Vancouver, reports of break-ins and property crimes are on the rise. Rows of fancy Robson Street shops are boarded up against potential looters. Concerns about economic devastation are growing, along with questions about how an eventual recovery will be managed.

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“We’ve had two or three weeks running on adrenaline as political parties work together,” McDonald said.

“But, a month from now and beyond, there will be profound challenges to face, and any good government needs a good opposition to function at its best.”

Watch for Scheer — and the country’s other opposition leaders — to hold governments more closely accountable as the pandemic drags on.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com
or at @MikeSmythNews on Twitter.