Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have often heard from those who hold to the simplistic view that confronting COVID-19 would be relatively easy if we would simply listen to and follow the advice of experts.
There is some truth to this: governments should have the best possible public-health advice. But in a democracy, where we get to hold governments accountable for their actions, it is elected officials, not unelected public-health bureaucrats, who must make the hard decisions about what the government response will look like.
This means that governments pandemic responses, like almost everything else they do, are political. Politicians must choose from a range of options which are often all bad, just in different ways. And they must weigh the interests and concerns of different groups when making their decisions.
Lockdown restrictions, for example, may be necessary to contain the spread of the virus. But imposing restrictions sooner rather than later may have the effect of shutting down more businesses that cannot survive the short-term absence of customers.
Those businesses can be kept afloat by government support programs, but this may require deficit spending, which has other consequences down the line. And on and on. Any decision will help certain groups and hurt others, and politicians must decide between them.
The political nature of these decisions helps us to understand why governments sometimes make seemingly weird decisions; often, there are considerations the public cannot see. And, sometimes, the mask slips and we get to see how political these decisions really are.
The best example of this from the current pandemic is in Alberta. Throughout the pandemic, Premier Jason Kenneys UCP government has been notably slow to impose restrictions when necessary and head-scratchingly quick to lift restrictions and declare victory.
We eventually got a glimpse into why this was happening when the beginnings of a caucus and party rebellion began to take shape against Kenney. The UCP rebels, it turned out, were organizing against Kenney not because of the governments seemingly ineffectual response to the pandemic, but rather because the thought was the governments response was too tough!
Kenney was trying to walk a fine line between a voting public that is largely receptive to public-health restrictions and a party (and caucus) that is decidedly more skeptical about these measures than the public. His tilting too far from the opinion of his party meant his leadership was threatened.
An evocative illustration of Kenneys unenviable position came last May when some opponents of government restrictions organized a No More Lockdowns Rodeo near Bowden, Alberta, where between 4,000 and 5,000 attendees openly flouted public-health orders.
Kenney condemned the rodeo. But at a subsequent UCP caucus meeting, he was told by his own MLAs that the rodeo attendees made up part of the partys rural base, with the implication that the premier should probably stop criticizing them. I want a new base, Kenney reportedly responded.
Here in Manitoba, these voices seem to have been more muted. But resistance to government restrictions featured prominently in the recent Progressive Conservative leadership race when one candidate, Ken Lee, openly courted vaccine-hostile voters.
Last week, Tory MLA Ron Schuler was removed from cabinet after long refusing to disclose whether he was in fact vaccinated, arguing that it was his right to keep his medical decisions private. In response to his getting the boot, Schuler tweeted out Liberty has its price, today I paid for mine, suggesting he had been shown the door due to conflict between his views and the governments pandemic response. Stefanson later confirmed this in a press conference.
Whatever Schulers vaccination status, Stefanson was right to remove him from cabinet, since the former ministers public statements were increasingly out of step with the governments messaging. Asked recently about whether he thought Manitobans should be vaccinated, Schuler emphasized that people should research the vaccines and make the decision that is best for them.
That is in stark contrast to the governments position that vaccines are safe and Manitobans should be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.
In our Westminster system of government, cabinet must speak with one voice, so Schulers position as a minister had become untenable. And really, Stefanson should have explicitly and immediately explained why Schuler was sacked, rather than leaving us to examine tweets and tea leaves to figure it out for ourselves.
Schuler will continue to be an MLA in a PC caucus with several voices that are thought to be skeptical of various aspects of the governments pandemic response, particularly lockdown restrictions. Thats perfectly fine, since any leader should, within reason, be able to tolerate diversity of thought in the party caucus.
But as Omicron continues to swamp Manitoba, one cant help wondering about the role some elements of the PC caucus have played in shaping the governments political pandemic response.
Royce Koop is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba and academic director of the Centre for Social Science Research and Policy.