It is time for a national unity government

Scott Gilmore: If the Liberals want to take the best decisions for all Canadians, they need to bring the NDP and the CPC to the cabinet table

We are in a new place. The world is facing a simultaneous economic and health shock that has no precedent. Hourly, we are seeing developments and threats that would have been unthinkable even a few days ago. We need to consider responses that were once unthinkable, too.

As I write this Porter Airlines is announcing that it is cancelling all flights, even domestic, for the next two months. In the United States shelter in place orders have been issued in San Francisco and are expected shortly in New York City. Governments around the world, fearing a possible depression-level economic collapse, are moving to inject trillions into the markets. Borders are closing. Supply chains are failing. Medical infrastructure is either already overwhelmed or planning to be so shortly.

The Canadian government is either doing a good job or a terrible job responding, depending on your partisan stripes. And the coronavirus cabinet committee should be focused solely on taking some of the hardest decisions of their lives (in fact, possibly the hardest decisions any cabinet has faced since World War Two). What we don’t need now is partisan sniping and bickering.

For the most part, our politicians have chosen to act like grown-ups. There was some early posturing during Question Period, but as the scale of the crisis became clear, the Conservatives and the NDP have been mostly restrained and constructive.

I say mostly, because some shame needs to be poured on the heads of the two leading candidates for CPC leadership. Peter McKay and Erin O’Toole have continued to campaign on sneering, xenophobic and hyper-partisan cheap shots that would have disqualified them from a leadership race just 10 or 15 years ago. But, that is a topic for a quieter day.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: how to get tested, what the symptoms are, where to get help

Given what is at stake, it is time for the Prime Minister to consider convening a national unity cabinet that includes Andrew Scheer from the CPC and Jagmeet Singh from the NDP. Bringing them into decision making to ensure the government is getting input and insight from Canadians they are otherwise disconnected from.

There is no question, for example, that the CPC have a much better sense of what Albertans currently need or how they feel. Likewise, there are communities of Canadians whose voices resonate much more loudly within the NDP. If the Liberals want to take the best decisions possible, for all Canadians, they need all Canadians at the table—embodied in the political leadership they’ve chosen.

Less than one-third of Canadians voted Liberal. Bringing the NDP and the CPC (and possibly the Bloc and the Greens) into the decision-making process, Canadians from all provinces and of all political stripes will be comforted in knowing their voice is being heard. They will be far more willing to accept the hard decisions being made—and the sacrifices being asked—if they can see politicians they support and trust standing with the Prime Minister.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition plays a critical role in our parliamentary system. They hold the government to account and force it to justify its decisions. In normal circumstances, this role is played sitting across the aisle from the party in power, not sitting at the same cabinet table. But these are not normal circumstances—they are far closer to the great wars of the 20th century.

In 1917, in response to the Conscription Crisis, Prime Minister Robert Borden formed a cabinet composed of 12 Conservatives, nine Liberals, and one Labour member. During World War Two, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did the same. Clement Attlee, the leader of the opposition, became Churchill’s deputy prime minister.

In those instances, the prime ministers recognized that extraordinary challenges required extraordinary teams. They built those teams. They fought successfully together. Then they disbanded when the danger had passed.

In our case, a national unity government would not need to last very long—though there are analyses that predict the world will be reeling from the social and economic impact of the virus for at least another year.

The Prime Minister should pick up the phone today and ask Scheer and Singh to join him. They, in turn, should accept the offer in good faith and not use it to score political points. If they do, Canadians will remember and it will stain their legacy forever.

With a national unity cabinet, we will get better informed and more representative decisions, decisions made free from cheap partisan positioning, decisions that Canadians will be more likely to support, and decisions that will get us out of this crisis faster, together.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.