Predictable conclusions in expensive and unnecessary Covid report

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We already have a government that saw fit to ban itself from raising taxes, so it would hardly be surprising to see that same government try to ban itself from imposing public health restrictions.

It’s unclear, though, why such public policy choices need to be so elaborate and performative in nature. If a government is disinclined to a certain policy, then so be it. Nothing more really needs to be done.

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It’s clear Alberta’s current UCP government is opposed to new or higher taxes, for example. But it’s not enough to simply not create or raise taxes, the government felt it had to go one step further and amend the Taxpayer Protection Act to require that any new or higher tax first gain approval through a referendum. That law, like any law, can just as easily be changed or repealed by a future government.

But at least that didn’t require a redundant and expensive panel process to endorse that idea. Unfortunately, when it comes to the politics of pandemic policy, that’s exactly what we got.

So now we have a situation where the government is being advised to pursue legislative changes that would make it more difficult to impose public health restrictions — a recommendation that comes from a panel struck by the very same premier whose opposition to such restrictions is well documented.

When it comes to the so-called Manning Panel (a.k.a., the Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel), the redundancies don’t end there. The government spent $2 million on a panel to recommend changes already underway, and other approaches that line up nicely with the previously expressed viewpoints of the premier.

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For example, the panel recommends changing the Public Health Act to empower elected officials to have the final say on significant public health decisions. The government has already announced plans for such a change. The panel also recommends expanding the capacity of the health-care system so that a capacity crunch doesn’t dictate the need for certain measures. The government says it’s doing that, too.

One of the more curious recommendations, though, comes from the section on civil liberties. The report urges a “better balance,” between public health and individual freedoms, although it’s highly subjective as to where that line needs to be drawn. As we saw in Alberta, there was a real split between those who felt not enough was being done to protect public health and those who felt too much was being done in that regard. It’s unclear what the right answer was then, or what it might be in a future health emergency that’s even more dire.

Ultimately, the courts have a role in assessing whether governments have unreasonably infringed on rights or freedoms. But what this panel recommends is legislative changes to make it clear “that no infringement of constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms . . . is to be regarded as justifiable and reasonable until first proven to be so in a court of law.”

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It’s unclear how this would work in practise. Furthermore, a government that believes such measures are needed under certain circumstances would not impose such a legislative change in the first place. Conversely, it’s redundant for a government that opposes such an approach to prevent itself from doing something they have no intention of doing.

It’s convenient to have a longtime political ally and friend serve up a report that vindicates your outlook and policy direction. Policy choices and priorities are clearly the premier’s prerogative, and the voters will be the ones to render a verdict on those decisions.

But if this report reflects the preferred policy direction of the Smith government, it should not be seen as granting any new or additional legitimacy to those decisions. This was an unnecessary and expensive exercise that brought us little more than some very predictable conclusions.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on QR Calgary

[email protected]

Twitter: @RobBreakenridge

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