If politics is a reason for doing something in Ottawa, then the absence of politics is a reason for doing nothing.
So when Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals reached a point when it made sense to end the federal vaccine mandates for air and rail travel they did nothing, because they didn’t feel a political imperative pushing them in that direction.
The political inertia inside Mr. Trudeau’s seven-year-old government is so heavy that the Prime Minister and the people around him don’t even seem to feel the nudges of MPs in their own party – the folks in touch with constituents – who are telling them it is time for those mandates to go.
One Liberal MP, Joël Lightbound, voted two weeks ago for a Conservative motion calling for all pandemic rules to be dropped. Another, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, said in a tweet that while he didn’t agree with all of that motion, he believes “a two-dose vaccine mandate without accommodation is no longer justified.” Others, such as New Brunswick MP Wayne Long, have publicly called for the travel mandates to be lifted. There are more Liberal MPs who feel that way.
A year ago, there was a compelling reason for vaccine mandates. Two shots slowed the spread of COVID-19 and reduced serious illness, easing the burden on overstretched hospitals and other health care facilities.
But it was politics that entrenched vaccines in the Liberal government’s brand. Mr. Trudeau ran hard on the need for mandates in the 2021 election campaign, saying he would do what was necessary to get through the pandemic. He argued that Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives were too tied to anti-vaxxers to take action.
Now that the benefits of those vaccine mandates have been reduced, there is no justification for barring people, without any accommodation, from domestic travel. But the Liberal government apparently still feels tied to the simple political formula that helped win it the election – that mandates are good – even as the facts have changed.
They have changed because the two-dose vaccination required by the mandates – without boosters – is less effective than it used to be. They have changed because of the Omicron variant, which infected many who had been vaccinated. They have changed because health care networks are less overloaded than they were at previous pandemic peaks. And they have changed because provincial vaccine mandates have been dropped in most places. The vaccinated and unvaccinated are mingling extensively in Canadian society, meaning restrictions on travel have less effect.
Of course, vaccine mandates still could have a positive effect by encouraging a few more people to get life-saving shots. But that smaller potential benefit can’t be used indefinitely as an excuse for barring people from travel in a country like Canada.
If Mr. Trudeau’s government wants to make the case that some mandates are still justified, it is time for it to do so in detail. But, for mandates to remain useful, the government would have to start requiring boosters to keep up with the science. And after all this time it would have to find some way of accommodating unvaccinated travellers, such as by letting them fly if they have negative rapid tests.
So why hasn’t the Liberal government done anything about vaccine mandates?
You might chalk some of it up to the pattern of bureaucratic inertia in federal pandemic measures. The government was slow to reopen Canada’s borders to the fully vaccinated, slow to reopen government offices to the public and slow to ease checks and forms that add to delays at crowded airports.
When imposing unprecedented emergency measures, no one worked out a set of metrics for when those measures should be dropped. Now they are being re-evaluated at Ottawa’s pace.
But all that is compounded by the political inertia inside Mr. Trudeau’s government. Without a political impetus to do something, the default is to do nothing. Liberals argued vaccine mandates were necessary, and some Liberal supporters are in no rush to remove them. Mr. Trudeau’s government seems to see dropping the measures as the Conservative position.
So now the two biggest political parties are like broken clocks that are right twice a day. The Conservatives were against vaccine mandates even when they made sense, and the Liberals are for them even when they don’t.
That doesn’t make sense as policy. And Liberal MPs are effectively telling Mr. Trudeau it doesn’t make sense politically, either. Mr. Trudeau’s strategists might think public opinion isn’t ready for it, but the public statements from Liberals MPs are a warning that politics are changing rapidly – and that he is already behind the curve.
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