Opinion

When this is all over, will governing revert to the status quo? It shouldn't.

Opinion: The question is if our leaders will use the current moment to address long-standing economic and social policy failures—to 'build back better,' as some say—or return to how we used to run policies

Karim Bardeesy is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab and Matthew Mendelsohn is Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. They are co-creators, with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, of First Policy Response.

It’s been six months since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and the Canadian economy and society were thrown into crisis. The hopes for a “return to normal” have been dashed as school years, businesses and the lives of loved ones continue to be upended.

What have these six months taught us about how our public policy can address this upheaval and help Canadians get through the chaos?

The two of us have had a unique vantage point on these questions. In the early days of the pandemic, our organizations, along with the Brookfield Institute, created First Policy Response at Ryerson University. This project brings together the Canadian policy community—including insiders, researchers and frontline workers—to share the best ideas to get us through the crisis and position us for a sustainable and just recovery.

We’ve learned that there was broad-based support across the political spectrum for Canada’s first-response measures—income supports, rent relief, emergency investments in health and education, and the public health measures themselves—even if there has been disagreement about how much we should spend or how quickly to wind them down.

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We’ve also seen broad consensus that government and community are necessary when crisis strikes, and that it is government’s job to protect people against catastrophic, systemic risks.

But the issues we face as we move from emergency response to rebuilding—what to do about long-term care, childcare, systemic racism, industrial policy, Employment Insurance, green transition—are unlikely to attract the cross-partisan consensus that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit did. All of these issues will raise difficult choices about private vs. public sector delivery, resources, taxes and debt.

The most important debate right now is whether to use the current moment to address long-standing economic and social policy failures—to “build back better,” as some say—or to return to how we used to run policies and systems, maybe reforming them around the edges but not fundamentally changing them.

This latter “status quo ante” camp seems to hope that once a vaccine is found, we can pretend this whole thing never happened. Like we weren’t reminded every day that many of the people who clean our offices, mind our children and run our small businesses live precarious economic lives, with few of the social protections that those who work at universities or banks or government take for granted.

Those in the status quo ante camp argue that Canadians don’t want governments to think about policy reforms — they just want governments to help them get through. They say that Canadians want economic security, not grand plans for the future.

The forces of the status quo ante are strong. They populate many of the institutions that influence our ongoing pandemic response. And they also dominate our narratives, making it difficult to embrace new ways of approaching these long-standing problems.

But all around us, people and institutions are questioning their assumptions, reimagining their agency and no longer expecting to return to the status quo ante when the pandemic officially ends.

Large employers are rethinking their real estate footprint. Athletes are discovering their political power. It seems bizarre that the National Football League can finally get behind the Black Lives Matter movement while some Canadians with power and resources can’t imagine a legislative framework that ensures decent work for people who deliver their food or bathe their elderly parents.

People have been shouting for years that there are problems in our systems of early childhood education, long-term care, employment insurance and workplace protections. And they have had their proposed solutions ignored and their reports—often commissioned by governments—sit on shelves. Now we’re in a situation that has proven the diagnoses, at the very least, to be exactly right. Now is precisely the right time to do something about long-standing policy failures. And we need to do this at the same time as we battle the pandemic’s next wave.

The kinds of reforms being discussed (income-support systems for precarious workers or accessible public services) are not magical dreams or frivolous ornaments. They respond to the real anxieties that many Canadians face. Robust social infrastructure like childcare and housing are prerequisites for the economic growth that the forces of the status quo ante claim to want.

The narrative that Canadians just want the government to help them get through the next few months is comical. Public opinion is substantially supportive of broad-based reform.

There is no reason we can’t build back better while battling the pandemic. The health of our economy, communities and democracy requires us to do both at once.