A small tourist plane passes over downtown Ottawa at Parliament Hill on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

A small tourist plane passes over downtown Ottawa at Parliament Hill on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one

Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

READ MORE: Companies warn Tory motion could deter domestic production of PPE

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusParliament

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Kitimat RCMP are requesting assistance locating 24-year-old Teah Wilken, who was last seen getting on a bus at City Centre Mall in Kitimat around 6:30 p.m. Monday (Nov. 23). Kitimat RCMP Facebook photo.
Kitimat RCMP requesting assistance locating missing woman

Wilken last seen getting on bus at City Centre Mall in Kitimat around 6:30 p.m. Monday (Nov. 23)

The Nisga’a Nation activated its pandemic safety protocols Nov. 20 after a positive COVID-19 case in the Terrace area was identified. (Nisga’a Lisims Government photo)
Nisga’a Nation reverts to phase one pandemic restrictions

Tightening of precautions follows discovery of positive case in Terrace

Cases have gone up in Northern Health in the past week, as they have all over B.C. (K-J Millar/Black Press Media)
Northern Health reports new highest number of COVID-19 cases in one day

Nineteen cases were reported to Public Health last Tuesday (Nov. 17)

New COVID-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the in-person portion of the second annual Festival of Trees event scheduled for Nov. 20 -21 in Terrace. (Pexels)
In-person event cancelled, online auction still a go for Terrace’s Festival of Trees

Dr. R.E.M. Lee Hospital Foundation was planning to host the event at Heritage Park

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

Phillip Tallio was just 17 when he was convicted of murder in 1983 (file photo)
Miscarriage of justice before B.C. teen’s 1983 guilty plea in girl’s murder: lawyer

Tallio was 17 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his 22-month-old cousin

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

7-year-old Mackenzie Hodge from Penticton sent a hand-written letter to premiere John Horgan asking if she’d be able to see her elf, Ralph under the new coronavirus restrictions. (John Horgan / Twitter)
Elf on the shelf an acceptable house guest, B.C. premier tells Penticton girl

A 7-year-old from Penticton penned a letter asking if she’d be allowed to see her elf this year

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Most Read