PM’s sunny ways meet COVID’s darker days

‘We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring,’ Trudeau said

Canada is desperately in need of a little optimism right now, and Justin Trudeau, the self-branded “sunny ways” guy, should be just the prime minister for troubled times.

But politics is always a dance between hope and fear — doubly so in a pandemic.

So Canadians were treated to two speeches from Trudeau and his government on Wednesday, ranging from optimism to pessimism as COVID-19 remains dangerously on the march through this country.

The speech from the throne, with its promise of “brighter days” — not exactly sunny ways — was clearly drafted as the more hopeful declaration from Trudeau’s government.

But the prime minister’s televised address to the nation was about the very real fears rippling through the country right now. There was nothing very sunny in it at all, really.

“We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring,” Trudeau said. “I know this isn’t the news that any of us wanted to hear.”

Basically, Trudeau was giving us a double-barrelled dose of hope and fear on Wednesday, which are operating on different timelines.

In the short term, and there’s no sugar-coating it, is fear — fear of the pandemic causing even more illness, death and economic mayhem. The sunny-ways prime minister of 2015 finds himself warning of dark days ahead in 2020 and 2021.

In the longer term, likely as far away as next summer, exists some kind of hope, or so the federal government needs us to believe as fall is upon us.

The announcement of the wage subsidy stretching out to next summer, for instance, is optimism and pessimism all rolled into one.

The good news is that help is there for ravaged businesses and household finances. The bad news is that we’re going to need it until next summer — those far-off sunny days.

It’s almost impossible to imagine how Canadians would have reacted back in the second week of March if their political leaders announced that the pandemic would last a year. And let’s face it, that’s what Trudeau was announcing to the country on Wednesday night.

Hope back in the early days of the pandemic was measured in days — 14 days of isolation — then in weeks, then in months.

Trudeau, we’ll recall, waited until the Easter long weekend in April to give Canadians the hard news that life might not be back to normal until a vaccine was found.

Wednesday night’s TV address was harder news, and it also revolved around holidays.

“It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas,” Trudeau said in one of the most vivid, if disturbing, lines in his TV address.

Much was made of Trudeau taking advantage of two major speeches in one day to claim the limelight for himself and his party. But by the time both speeches were over, the need for separation of the two messages was more or less clear.

Their purposes, not to mention their intended audiences, were different.

This government needs people to believe that some hope still exists for getting past this crisis over the long haul — hence the long-winded, nearly hour-long speech from the throne.

More practically, the throne speech was a complicated bid to read the politics of the debate over the pandemic and keep the Liberal government from falling.

But the prime minister obviously felt the need to personally tell Canadians that COVID-19 was as scary now as it was back in March — maybe more so.

One speech, in short, was aimed at the institutions, and one was aimed at individuals.

Which speech will have more impact? It’s often said that fear is a more powerful force than hope in politics.

Certainly, the government has made clear what is more powerful in its calculations right now. Fear is the urgent, short-term issue; hope is further away. Fear is for Thanksgiving; hope is for Christmas.

We are a few weeks away from the fifth anniversary of Trudeau’s election win in 2015, when he promised he was going to be the prime minister of sunny ways.

That disposition had dissipated somewhat after five bruising years in power and last year’s election, which knocked him from majority to minority.

But Trudeau’s double-barrelled speeches to Canadians have underlined just how much the pandemic can do to optimism — at least for the short term.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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