Over the past few days we have witnessed the spectacle of elected politicians in several provinces subjected to the combined vitriol of the news media, their political opponents, much of the public and in many cases their own bosses. Their sin? Attempting to preserve some modicum of joy in their lives by exercising their lawful right to mobility.
First up was Rod Phillips, the Ontario Finance Minister, who rung out the old year by returning from a nearly three-week-long vacation on swank St. Barts in the Caribbean and then resigning under obvious pressure from Premier Doug Ford. Then, mere hours after the utterly joyless lowering of the famous ball in New York’s Times Square, Albertans were apparently shocked to learn that Tracy Allard, the UCP government’s Minister of Municipal Affairs, had taken her family on a Christmas vacation to Hawaii. The next day Niki Ashton, an NDP MP from Manitoba, was stripped of her roles as critic for transport and deputy critic for women and gender equality after travelling to Greece to visit her ailing grandmother.
By Monday morning we learned that at least five more UCP MLAs had headed to warmer climes over the holidays, while at the federal level two Liberal MPs were removed from their committee roles for going to the U.S. The issue is now being labelled a “scandal” that has reached the “boiling point”. Still more names may appear.
We have certainly begun 2021 without deviating from the doctrinaire and often-irrational style of public discourse and decision-making to which we depressingly became accustomed in 2020. I’m not referring to the choices made by Phillips, Allard, Ashton or the others to travel; I mean the wider response to them. They did nothing wrong. In fact, I salute them and wish that many more Canadians could gather the courage needed to emulate their actions. Doing so en masse might just deliver a distinct collective step towards, if not exactly normalcy, then at least a place where our lives, emotions and very minds are not governed entirely by pandemic madness.
Granted, our footloose Canadian politicians appear at first blush to be merely the latest floats in a revolting and still-lengthening parade of government leaders and officials worldwide who have continued to live their lives on a rarefied plane – often surreptitiously – while leaving the following of rules to the simpletons beneath. The examples here are seemingly endless.
Months ago, some commentators noticed the oddly neat haircut of Anthony Fauci. It seemed that, at a time when hundreds of millions of Americans were locked down and growing ever-shaggier, the director of the U.S.’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was slipping out for personal grooming – as well as enjoying a baseball game sans the mask he was demanding all Americans wear. More recently, White House virus expert Deborah Birx was found out to have enjoyed a Thanksgiving break with either three or four generations of her family (she seemed to have trouble with the math) after advising Americans to avoid doing just that.
In early December Steve Adler, the Democrat mayor of Austin, Texas, posted a video message demanding that Austinians “stay home”, clearly implying that he was manning his desk in the state capital when in fact he was shooting the video in a Cabo San Lucas hotel room. Most infamously, California governor Gavin Newsom, who has issued some of the most oppressive edicts of any American state, was discovered to have dined indoors at one of the topmost restaurants
in chichi Napa Valley with an impressive retinue of fellow lawbreakers – including two lobbyists from the California Medical Association.
These and many other such figures were caught flagrantly violating a law, edict, regulation or policy that they had personally authorized and/or propounded, and then either concealed the act or lied about it. Newsom’s dining dozen, for example, variously denied the event had even happened, claimed it was held outdoors, said the party was smaller than it was, and insisted social distancing rules were followed. All of this was belied by photos taken by someone on the scene. It was behaviour plucked from Nero’s Rome or the last French court before the storming of the Bastille. Indeed, in a breathtaking ratio of these ever-unfolding incidents, perpetrators have skated free following lame apologies or a bit of grovelling.
While these examples may well encourage the temptation to emit a self-righteous “Ah-ha!” regarding our Canadian travellers’ conduct, they are entirely dissimilar. Phillips, Allard, Ashton and the rest went somewhere at their own expense (as far as we know) while breaking no laws and deceiving no-one. They did not attempt to conceal their travel; they merely went away. Ashton even tweeted about her whereabouts during her trip. (Although Allard’s Merry Christmas video, showing her standing beside the Legislature tree and posted while she was in Hawaii may strike some as deceptive.) Nor have I yet found instances of them demanding that Canadians abide by rules different from those they obeyed themselves. They are neither rulebreakers nor, it seems, hypocrites.
The unending avalanche of rhetoric about rules, restrictions, lockdowns and case-counts has obscured that it is perfectly legal for anyone to get on an airplane and travel for personal reasons to many places around the world, including the U.S. We all know, of course, that the federal government recommends against “non-essential” travel. This is treated by the media and, it seems, many others as a conversation-ending cudgel.
But so what? All sorts of things are “not recommended” by risk-averse government organizations whose assessments deviate widely from what an autonomous and risk-aware individual might decide. Not three weeks ago the RCMP, upon learning that Mother Nature was planning to behave in an unforgivably wintery manner (and to deliver what was likely to be the best skiing day of the season so far), demanded that everyone in southern Alberta immediately hunker down and avoid all travel. In an era when our personal vehicles are technological marvels of anti-lock brakes, all-wheel-drive, ingenious anti-skid software and fiendishly clever tire compounds and tread designs, every one of us was supposed to miss out on some of the last remaining legal fun – skiing – because the roads might be slippery and the visibility reduced.
What actually is recommended any longer? Not much, it seems. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the web page where the Liberal government did recommend that I vote Conservative. Nowhere does Ottawa provide handy shortcuts to the works of Ayn Rand. The Canada Food Guide doesn’t tell me to put half-and-half cream in my coffee, nor urge me to continue eating well-marbled steaks.
We are left to think for ourselves. And I wish far more people would do so. If you don’t want to drive to the ski hill when it’s snowing, stay home. But don’t force me to do the same. If you want to narrow the horizons of your life to a dimly lit basement and a giant TV screen, I’ll feel sad for you, although I won’t stop you. But don’t tell me I can’t get on a plane and enjoy some sunshine, swaying palms and turquoise waters. My life would be a joyless, boring drudge if I didn’t decide for myself what mattered to me and make my own decisions. Including decisions related to travelling during a pandemic which, as I found out back in the fall, can be utterly wonderful.
It’s true that some of the controversial trips in question also “violated” provincial “guidelines” that “discourage” travel deemed “non-essential”. For a representative of such a government, choosing to ignore the ever-expanding web of “guidelines” is ethically and political tricky. The apparent flouting of rules shown by provincial and federal politicians from – at last count – four parties is admittedly a significant and, for many voters, probably a deciding factor: they should all have remained home with the rest of us.
To me, this simply illustrates how the overweening (and evidently blinding) arrogance of government leaders and top public officials evinced since the pandemic set in has come back to bite them. Instead of launching a never-ending stream of nanny-ish rhetoric that, 10 months later, makes the issuer feel bound to police the day-to-day behaviour of every person who reports to them, perhaps there shouldn’t be so many guidelines to begin with. If something isn’t actually against the law, then maybe governments should just shut up about it. For everyone’s benefit.
Why, back in the spring, did any of our premiers, ministers, big-shot mayors or public health officials presume to tell people not to drive to their cabins or to cross provincial borders? (I realize specific laws varied from province to province, so I’ll use conditions in Alberta to illustrate.) If going for a walk, driving to your cabin and getting on a plane are each lawful acts, why is only one of these recommended while the other two are discouraged and suppressed through a mixture of ambiguous messaging, moralistic posturing and legally toothless but obviously oppressive “guidelines”, enforced by the increasingly unhinged news media and the frothing Twitter mob? Perhaps those political leaders and “top doctors” could have simply reminded their fellow thinking human beings to follow the law, then left them in peace to decide on the rest for themselves.
Such a position would today be paying dividends to all those politicians now sent to the doghouse. Consider again Allard’s jaunt to Hawaii. Though her trip, and those of her fellow MLAs, violated certain “guidelines”, they were consistent with and actually advanced the broader and oft-declared government policy of saving the economy, including the travel sector, and lynchpin infrastructure organizations like airports. The sole purpose of Alberta having clamoured for Calgary International Airport to be the pilot site for the rapid-testing of returning travellers was to encourage international travel.
The pilot program, we are told, has been a strong technical success and, it seems, has enabled thousands of Albertans to travel without having to endure the disruptions of two weeks’ quarantine upon returning. Sounds great. But thanks to those “guidelines”, you’d better not try it if you’re a politician or senior bureaucrat – perhaps one of the very people who spoke in favour of the program in caucus meetings or around the cabinet table.
There is also the question of what, exactly, constitutes “essential” travel. Ashton’s trip (and we will presume her good faith) would seem to qualify under virtually any definition. So do those of the two newly demoted Liberal MPs. But why should we care, let alone judge? Why is a trucker bringing a load of flat-screens across the Canada-U.S. land border “essential”, but someone suffering from cancer or Parkinson’s who pines for one last look (or perhaps a first look) at frolicking sea turtles frivolous? What about a workaholic whose spouse is barely hanging on and whose kids are starting to wonder about the difference between their parent and an actual deadbeat? Dealing with any of that, including through travel, seems pretty essential to the individuals in question.
But again, who are we to judge? We are, still, partially free in this country, and you don’t need to justify your trip to me or any of our “rulers”. Just get on the plane – I’m happy for you.
Any such compassion or understanding appears to have escaped Phillips’ boss. Rather, Ford lapsed into well-practiced moralistic posturing in procuring his Finance Minister’s resignation. Phillips was further hammered for not immediately departing the Caribbean once Ontario announced its province-wide lockdown. Am I truly the only one who considers the proposition that Phillips ought to have rushed home into the lockdown to be utterly bizarre? For the individual, a lockdown would seem to be the absolute best time to be gone. As for pandemic management, wouldn’t the province actually be better off if more of its residents left and stayed away until the crisis passed?
Which brings up the question of actual travel safety. And here I speak from personal experience. If you have made a habit of practising good protocols, test yourself immediately before departure, take care while travelling and are tested upon arrival, you will not spread Covid-19 from your home country to your
destination. If you choose your destination wisely, you can spend your time away in greater safety than at home. And if you repeat the process in reverse for the trip home, you almost certainly won’t bring it back with you and, should you have incredibly bad luck, rapid testing and isolation all-but ensure you won’t spread it. You do need to do things properly, but the tasks are manageable and the burden reasonable. Tens of thousands of Canadian travellers have already demonstrated that this is the case.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney first avoided meting out Ford-style punishment upon Allard and her fellow travellers. When the news broke, Kenney himself shouldered much of the blame and said he would provide new and crystal-clear “guidelines” covering ministers, MLAs and senior bureaucrats. The opposition, however, gleefully called for Allard’s head while the media republished tweets demanding Kenney’s own resignation. It has become fashionable to criticize nearly anything Kenney says or does; his handling of the pandemic is, according to one poll, approved of by just 30 percent of Albertans.
Personally, I found the Alberta premier’s initial response not only courageous but admirable and honourable. Unlike Ford and innumerable politicians, corporate leaders and heads of other organizations in countless analogous situations, Kenney declined to throw Allard under the bus. This is not the first time Kenney has gone to the mat for a subordinate, at considerable short-term political cost to himself. Who would you rather work for? Further, someone who clearly cares about the people who work for him might, just might, also be sincere in his concern for small businesspeople and voters at large.
Sadly, however, Kenney ultimately could not resist the stinking red tide of public opinion; on Monday, he accepted Allard’s resignation from cabinet, as well as that of his chief of staff, who had travelled to the UK, and demoted the other MLAs.
As for the envy-laden argument that “those privileged grandees are partying in the tropics while we poor downtrodden saps are hunkered down at home”, this too is bogus. While St. Barts is probably a bit rich for most of us, non-stop return flights from Calgary to Maui sell for as little as $600 while all-inclusive seven-day packages at nice resorts in Cabo San Lucas can be had for $1,300 to $1,500 per person. This is affordable to the large majority of Canadians; the only missing ingredient is willpower.
Yet after nearly a year of unending government and media propaganda, millions of Canadians seem convinced that it’s actually against the law to travel. Hardly a week goes without an argument in my own circle over whether its illegal to travel to the U.S. (it isn’t) or whether the land border with B.C. is closed (it, too, isn’t). Part of my Alberta family thinks it’s forbidden to go to B.C. at all, while another branch recently frolicked at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden.
Meanwhile, even British Columbians seem a bit confused about what they are allowed to do in their own province. One Vancouver friend cancelled a trip to look at real estate in Kelowna because he said it would be against the law; another friend from Kelowna happily visited a friend in Vancouver; a third recently met up with his Okanagan-based daughter at a regional ski area.
Right now, I can go to Hawaii, St. Barts, Greece, Mexico, the U.S. and many other attractive destinations. Why should there be special rules denying the same opportunity to somebody who made the mistake of getting themselves elected to office or who holds a senior position in the bureaucracy – plus their spouse and kids? It is degenerate reasoning of the worst sort to conflate politicians who ride above the law with other politicians who are merely doing what is also available to the rest of us. There should be one law for all, and that law permits travel.
George Koch is Editor-in-Chief of C2C Journal.