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Governments must resist Covid-19 lobbying frenzy; focus on long-term sustainability transition

April 18, 2020

Updated version published in the Conversation, May 14, 2020.

Last week a letter to a host federal ministers from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) was leaked to the media. The contained a laundry-list of new and not-so-new asks on behalf of the upstream oil and gas industry, including stopping moving forward on climate policies, exempting projects from environmental review, and excusing the association from having to report on its lobbying activities.

The leak seemed to confirmed what many observers have suspected has been going on behind the scenes during the Covid-19 crisis - that while media and public attention are overwhelming focused on the pandemic and its impacts, and Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal council meetings are suspended, intense lobbying is taking place on behalf of major economic interests like CAPP’s members.

These efforts seem largely focused on restoring the economic status quo ante. In many cases, like CAPP’s, the goal seems to be to take the opportunity to get governments double down on existing economic pathways and dependencies, effectively reinforcing the positions of already dominant actors and corporations.

Governments need to respond to these pressures with caution. Many of the demands being made by various industries and sectors have little or nothing to do with the immediate impact of the pandemic or responses to it. At the same time, the Covid-19 crisis has raised major, global scale, questions about viability of the economic, business and employment models that those lobbyists are arguing for a return to.

The pandemic has revealed critical vulnerabilities of globalized critical supply chains, feeding just-in-time delivery and inventory models, supported by workforces in increasingly precarious ‘gig’ employment models. Those made most vulnerable by these models have turned out to be critically important in maintaining food supply gains, healthcare systems and physical infrastructures needed for societies to continue to function and respond to the pandemic.

Nor have other longer-term global challenges, like climate change, the crises of ecological sustainability in the oceans and on land, and growing inequality between the rich and the poor, gone away. Rather they are at risk of being exacerbated by how governments respond to the pandemic. Global communications networks have critical in facilitating responses to the Covid-19, and have been central to the viability of the lockdowns that have been implemented across the world. However, their potential roles in managing the pandemic are raising a series of questions around privacy and governmental surveillance activities that will extend far beyond the end of the current crisis.

In a situation where it looks as the physical distancing measures related to the pandemic may need to continue for an extended period - certainly until vastly more widespread testing and contact tracing systems are in place, and potentially until effective treatments and vaccines are available – steps need to be taken to restore some basic accountability and oversight structures on governmental activities.

The partial live and virtual reconvening of Parliament this week was a good move in the right direction.  Provincial legislatures, including Ontario's, have yet to start to take the same initiative. Many other governing bodies, including my own university’s Senate, have already figured out ways carry on their business virtually as well.

Other basic structures for transparency and accountability in corporate behaviour and governmental  decision-making need to be restored. The Ford government in Ontario, for example, has suspended the public notice and comment mechanisms for environmental decisions and approvals under the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights for the duration of the emergency. There was no evidence presented to suggest that the provisions were a barrier to the government’s responses to crisis. Were a problem to arise there are mechanisms to deal with emergency situations in relation to specific decisions in the legislation. Instead, a veil of secrecy has been installed behind which all manner of mischief unrelated to the pandemic may occur.

In the longer term, the pandemic has opened a series of questions to which answers will be needed. Some will be sector-specific. The catastrophic situation in care homes, which have emerged as the epicenter of the pandemic in Canada, for example, will require nothing less than formal inquiries at the federal and provincial levels. A fundamental rethinking of care models for most vulnerable members of society, including major revisions to staffing, funding, oversight and inspection practices and the roles of for-profit operators in the system, seems essential.

More broadly, the situation has made it clear that steps will have to be taken to provide income and benefit stability and security in increasingly precarious workforces.  And with global capital seeking a second massive bailout by governments (i.e. taxpayers) in little more than a decade, a demand in exchange for a system more balanced in favour of the interests of democratic governance, transparency, people and the planet, seem far from unreasonable.