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Governing during a crisis: Perspectives from a veteran Canadian politician

Last Updated Apr 8, 2020 at 7:27 am PDT

FILE - Parliament Hill in Ottawa is pictured on October 29, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

A former politician with decades of experience is giving some insights on emergency decision making

Bob Rae says you have to rely on those inside the circle of government who are doing the job when weathering a crisis

Rae admits the scale of the challenge posed by a global pandemic and an economic crisis is not something he's dealt with

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – At a World Health Organization briefing in mid-March, Dr. Michael J. Ryan said the most important lesson he learned while tackling the Ebola crisis was to not let perfection get in the way of speed.

“The greatest error is not to move,” he said. “Be fast and have no regrets.”

It’s an approach with which Bob Rae agrees.

As a former premier of Ontario, Member of Parliament, interim leader of the Liberal Party, and special envoy to Myanmar during the Rohingya crisis, Rae has had his share of 18-hour days.

“You have to rely on the people who are actually inside the circle of government who are doing the job, and who are able to manage and are familiar with all the competing messages that are coming in from so many different sources,” he says.

“At the same time you have to avoid the risk and the danger of becoming isolated… the circle around the prime minister or the premier becomes smaller, and at that point, you’re not getting all the information you need.”

He admits, though, that the scale of the challenge posed by a global pandemic, combined with an economic crisis is not something with which he has had to contend.

“I think the two things together are not something any government would normally plan for, and I think everyone is having to improvise,” Rae says.

Such improvisation inevitably leads to error, and the federal government has taken criticism on many fronts — from the chief public health officer’s mixed messaging around face-masks, to the number of groups left behind by a hastily-assembled multi-billion dollar economic aid package.

Rae says to the government’s credit, some of that criticism has been addressed quickly.

“They’re not defensive, they’re listening to what people are saying, they’re saying, ‘Well, if we can do it better, we’ll do it better’… and they’re going big,” he says.

Like many Canadians, Rae has fallen into a new daily rhythm, which includes viewing daily updates from Justin Trudeau, and various other health and government officials.

Such a routine, he says, is beneficial — not just for information, but reassurance.

But, “like all routines, at some point it comes to an end… and I think that’s one of the key things that’s going to be facing governments in the days ahead, I’d say the weeks ahead: how to make the transition to thinking about the medium and longer term.”