On March 21, at the age of 81, country music legend Kenny Rogers breathed his last. To borrow from The Gambler—arguably his most famous hit—his dealin’ was done.
He dealt a lot of winners during his time on earth. He recorded twenty-four number one songs, sold more than 165 million albums, won six Country Music Awards and collected three Grammys.
In ordinary times, the passing of someone of Mr. Rogers’ fame and stature would have generated a gigantic public outpouring of grief, many weeks of tributes, and endless trips down memory lane.
But his passing was little more than a footnote to newsreels crammed with grim statistics and dire predictions, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have boyhood memories of sweeping out my father’s dairy on sunlit mornings, singing along to Kenny Rogers crooning huskily from the barn radio:
Everyone considered him the coward of the county
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong
His mama named him Tommy, but folks just called him Yellow
But something always told me, they were reading Tommy wrong
A couple days ago that song’s title—Coward of the County—was applied derisively by one of my friends to our Prime Minister, with a bit of a tweak: “Justin Trudeau is the coward of the country.”
That low opinion was prompted by the PM’s prolonged sojourn at Rideau cottage, where he self-isolated from March 12 until April 8 in the face of perhaps the greatest crisis this country has ever endured. (Mr. Trudeau finally returned to Parliament Hill yesterday to attend a cabinet meeting.)
His confinement was triggered by his wife, Sophie Gregoire, who contracted COVID-19 during a trip to London; she went into quarantine at Rideau Cottage on March 12th along with Mr. Trudeau and their three children.
Sophie developed mild symptoms from the virus, but thankfully by March 28 she had made a complete recovery. The PM and the kids never got sick.
“I am feeling so much better and have received the all clear from my physician and Ottawa Public Health,” Sophie said in a grateful Facebook post.
But despite that clean bill of health Mr. Trudeau stayed put, emerging once each day to deliver a morning address to the nation in front of his “cottage”.
He was, he suggested, setting an example for Canadians who were being asked to stay at home.
Fair enough, I say.
I don’t agree with my friend’s acid put-down of the PM. As Kenny Rogers might put, he was reading Justin wrong.
I don’t think Mr. Trudeau is a coward.
But nor has he been much of a leader.
He dithered and blundered as the novel coronavirus burned its way into our country. No blunder was bigger than his inexplicable decision to leave our airports wide open despite clear evidence of the virus’ rapid spread. Week after week planeload after planeload of passengers streamed into our country from affected parts of the world and infected every nook and cranny of our country.
The folly of that decision is now glaringly obvious. As of this writing 435 Canadians are dead from COVID-19; thousands more will lose their lives in coming weeks and months. The death toll will be far higher than it would have been if we had taken sensible action at our airports.
The country desperately needed—and needs—bold, decisive, Churchillian leadership. But Mr. Trudeau has been distressingly limp-wristed. He’s been consistently reactive instead of proactive, applying a steady drip, drip, drip of halfway measures to contain the virus. The provinces have been left for the most part to chart their own courses.
In fairness, precious few global leaders have gotten this right. Effective decision-making in the context of chaos—when there is scant evidence and little agreement—is extraordinarily difficult.
Canadians have been forgiving. Despite his missteps, Mr. Trudeau garners a 74% approval rating for his handling of this crisis, according to the latest Ipsos poll. Canadians understand, perhaps, that leaders with the iron mettle and piercing vision of Winston Churchill are rare.
Churchill wrote the playbook on delivering exemplary leadership during chaos. Confronted by scant evidence and little agreement in the face of the Nazi threat infecting the world in his day, he forged boldly ahead, applying “blood, toil, tears and sweat” to the difficult, wrenching decisions that had to be made.
He constantly learned, in real time, from the fallout of those decisions—what worked and what didn’t—and quickly pivoted to making better ones.
He understood the truth of which Kenny Rogers sang:
Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowing what to keep
Which brings me back to Prime Minister Trudeau, and specifically to his government’s efforts to supply economic life rafts to drowning Canadians and businesses.
A pivot is needed.
The government, to its credit, has rolled out a host of financial initiatives, supporting Canadians by delaying income tax payments and floating $27 billion in support programs and payments to individuals and businesses.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of government workers, programs like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefits are already plunking cash into Canadians’ accounts.
Others, like the business wage subsidy program, are hung up in (virtual) parliamentary discussions as the complexities of how they should be administered and to whom they will apply are hashed out.
Taken together, these programs and subsidies are generating, and will continue to generate, hopeless tangles of red tape and mountains of confusion, stress and anxiety. Who qualifies? Who doesn’t, and why not? Do I have to pay this back? When? Why? And so on and on.
This is not the time to hastily construct new layers of bureaucracy. Preventing abuse and achieving fairness will be all but impossible. Many of those in need will fall through the cracks.
There is a better way, a much simpler way. Just hit pause.
Pause everything—indefinitely—for everyone. No application required.
Pause income taxes for individuals and businesses.
Pause payroll taxes.
Pause GST payments.
Pause all mortgage payments.
Pause all rental and lease payments.
Pause all utility payments.
Pause all property taxes.
Pause credit card and line-of-credit payments.
Pause everything, while committing to keeping the lights on, the water running, the natural gas flowing, and concentrating on maintaining essential services, supply chains and infrastructure.
Then issue $1000 each month to every Canadian household. Again, no need to apply.
Given that there are twelve million households in Canada this would cost the feds $12 billion per month until we can get the economy firing again.
A thousand bucks per household may not be the right number. I’m a doctor, not an economist.
But with all debt-servicing, taxes and rents suspended, the only thing households should need to purchase, for the most part, is food. Plus a few bucks for gas, perhaps, to facilitate going to the grocery store or pharmacy as needed.
I read recently that 50% of small businesses that have been forced to close by this pandemic are unlikely to reopen, lost beneath an avalanche of debt. The prolonged pain and hardship this would mean for Canadians is unimaginable.
But with no property taxes to pay, no taxes to remit, no lease payments to meet, and no debts to service, businesses that are suffering or are forced to close need not be buried by debt. Nor will they be forced, as the current bailout program proposes, to prove 30% reduction in business to qualify for a 75% wage subsidy to maintain employees they don’t need, as the current government program requires. The spectacle of Air Canada and Westjet collectively rehiring 22,000 workers with the help of the federal wage subsidy so they can sit at home leaves me shaking my head.
With the simple “pause” scheme I’ve laid out, most businesses can re-open their doors when the economy reboots and begin to pick up where they left off.
I repeat: I’m no economist. I’m sure I’ve left some things out. (I left out the carbon tax, for instance, which Mr. Trudeau just doubled—merely typing those words made my blood pressure spike dangerously: the less said about it the better for my health.)
But “hitting the pause button” requires little additional bureaucracy; it can be applied immediately; and it treats everyone the same: the same life raft is issued to everyone.
The households of essential workers, of course, would receive $1000 per month on top of their pay. But that seems rather small compensation for the hazards they face from this virus as they serve the rest of us during this crisis.
It’s worth pointing out, in closing, that for many essential workers—like grocery store workers and most doctors—their pay goes to zero if they become infected with COVID-19 in the line of duty. No sick pay. No death benefit if the worst occurs and the virus kills them.
Of all the things our governments have gotten wrong in their response to this pandemic, that’s perhaps the most egregious of all.