Only Connect: The Politics of COVID-19 Crisis Management

For students of both politics and government, the entwined health and economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic have turned the overquoted Harold MacMillan warning against “Events dear boy, events” into a sad punchline. As complicated as this crisis is, it has in some ways forced a return to the most basic principles of government-public communication, starting with a prime minister’s daily briefing from his front stoop. Longtime Liberal strategist, strategic communicator and novelist John Delacourt elaborates. 

John Delacourt 

Oh, America. It was a moment easily missed in the barrage of reporting on the COVID-19 crisis from political capitals around the world. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in self-isolation prior to his recent hospitalization with the virus, let slip one telling line in a video from 10 Downing Street: “There really is such a thing as society.” 

Those who well remember the Thatcher years, looking back in either anger or in admiration, recognized this passing comment as a not-so-subtle rebuke to the Iron Lady’s defining declaration: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”

Johnson, like Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet, was clearly coming to terms with how a crisis of this magnitude has ripped up the old scripts of leadership and transcended current partisan notions of government’s role in the lives of its citizens. 

You could qualify that read on the new normal as applying only for now, but it is a now that will stretch into months. The current operating principle for governing evokes a famous quote not of a statesperson but of the novelist E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” Communicate effectively and relentlessly, forge alliances and partnerships for maximum effect in flattening the curve of this pandemic and keeping an economy in life support. 

Those working within the Trudeau government have taken consolation where it can be found over the last four months of this annus horribilus. If you’re on the front lines in the Prime Minister’s Office or with a minister’s team, it is possible to look back on the Iran plane crash in January and the blockades of Canada’s rail lines in February as dress rehearsals for this, the big show in emergency preparedness and crisis response. 

The same tactical toolkit has been applied: each day is focused on a situation report, while Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and select members of cabinet lead the tricky negotiations behind the scenes, often with those not naturally aligned, either by temperament or ideology, with the current government. Freeland’s close working relationship with Ontario Premier Doug Ford is a case in point. 

Trudeau’s team have staked their political capital on the assumption that Canadians have recognized the inherent complexities within each of the challenges the pandemic is creating, and the grave implications of reacting, in order to project decisiveness, rather than negotiating to make the best decisions. The operating assumption has been that Canadians just want to know the government is “on it,” and is focused on connecting and listening to those most impacted by the shutdown of the economy. And, as with the society Johnson evoked, industry, all levels of government and citizens working in all sectors have a place at the table to be active in response and recovery. 

The approach has given new latitude to cabinet to communicate. A frequent criticism of the first Trudeau term was how top-down the leadership style was, and that ministers were being handled by their staffers whose effectiveness was defined by how dutifully they carried out direction from the PMO. The logistical impossibility of a staffer being on every call their minister makes these days means that Freeland’s more direct and untethered form of engagement has been increasingly adopted by other ministers. The cabinet’s special committee on the pandemic does a virtual meeting each day, lines are established on the measures being implemented, and then they are urged to “get out there” and communicate via webinars, conference calls with councils, NGOs, or online outlets for the business community like The Bay Street Bull.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau behind his West Block office desk on April 8 for the first time after a month of working in isolation at Rideau Cottage. He’s briefed by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland (R), while Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart (L) looks on with PMO Chief of Staff Katie Telford, and senior Freeland staffer Jeremy Broadhurst. Adam Scotti photo

Major policy announcements that in normal circumstances would take months to finalize have been rolled out on a daily basis, and it has tested the public service in unprecedented ways to be “creative” and nimble. One senior advisor on Trudeau’s team suggested to me that the relative success in implementation—so far—would not have been possible if there hadn’t been a strong working relationship established between political staff and the team on the other side of the boardroom table over the last five years. This may indeed be the case, or it could simply be the nature of good public servants to focus more on outcomes than process when the need for service delivery is urgent.

This new demonstrated expertise in crisis management is still led from the top, however. It is a truism that events define leadership; the more provocative and salient question is what, during Trudeau’s time in office, has produced the kind of Prime Minister he is now becoming. The Trudeau who talked over his own finance minister at the podium during the worst days of Morneau’s struggles with a controversial launch of tax changes is markedly different from the Prime Minister who emerges from Rideau Cottage each day now as chief consoler, as millions of jobs are lost and the most vulnerable remain at fatal risk. Like an anchor on a newscast, Trudeau gives Canadians the top line messages and then defers to his cabinet colleagues and senior mandarins to provide the substantive details of each new announcement later in the day. Whether it is a question of taking wise counsel or trusting his intuition—or more likely the result of a complex interplay of both—Trudeau, like Premier Ford, has understood that tone and plain speaking about what citizens, not governments, must do is what Canadians actually want to hear from him. 

Call it a catastrophe of good political timing. Trudeau was poised and ready for a new shift in tone, coming out of the precarious descent in his approval ratings during the worst days of the 2019 election campaign. In the midst of the “blackface” revelations, he had salvaged his campaign—and just barely—by realizing explanations were secondary to acknowledging the gravity of his actions. Any attempt at minimizing the betrayal of trust Canadians felt at that time would have given Andrew Scheer, Jean-François Blanchet and a surging Jagmeet Singh enough momentum to unseat the Liberals. In the wake of this near-defeat, re-establishing trust and focusing on competence and steady hands were already defining the new managing style within the PMO. Freeland was provided a staff of some of the strongest advisors to fortify efforts from the centre. This new approach in getting down to business filtered right down to the social media strategy; much like Stephen Harper during his time in office, the directive was to focus on the PM at work, not smiling for selfies. 

But Canadians had yet to see this new approach in action. Until the pandemic hit. It is an open question as to what it might mean for the political fortunes of Trudeau in the long term. It is instructive, in comparison, to see how Trump’s approval numbers have begun to trend downward as this unfolding crisis puts his leadership style—and his competence—under a microscope through daily briefings, while Trudeau and his team have found their footing, with over 70 percent of Canadians supporting the team’s new playbook. 

But to extend the sports analogy, this is a crisis that is still very much in the second, not the third period. Ministers and their staff will openly admit they’re not getting everything right, and that there is much work to be done to address the challenges of Canadians who are falling through the cracks between stimulus and assistance measures. There is talk of reintroducing the Advisory Council on Economic Growth—perhaps more aptly named economic rehabilitation and recovery—to summon the best thinking outside of the prime minister’s current inner circle. There are few certainties about a post-pandemic economic recovery, except for the central fact it will take years, not months, to see the kind of broad-based growth and job numbers Trudeau campaigned on just a year ago. But for the time being, the prime minister and his team can find some consolation in connecting like never before. 

Whether he can credit the trust of an engaged society—pace Johnson—focused on others rather than themselves first, or the foundations of a just society that another Trudeau once spoke of, that trust has been granted for the time being.  

Contributing Writer John Delacourt, Vice President and Group Leader of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Ottawa, is a former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau. He is also the author of three novels: Ocular Proof, Black Irises and Butterfly.