OTTAWA— What is going on with Patty Hajdu, the incredible shrinking minister?
Some of it is explained by an aggressive Opposition attack this fall led by a fresh Conservative leader in Erin O’Toole and a sharp critic Michelle Rempel Garner. They claim not to want an election but they’re done playing on Trudeau’s “Team Canada.”
Hajdu initially reached out to brief her new critic but the gloves are off and the federal health minister finds herself outmatched, trying to maintain a level-headed tone but often failing in the heat of the moment.
In denigrating Opposition demands for greater transparency and accountability, snarking that no Canadian asked her to put more money on access to information staffers, Hajdu delivered a chippy response that helped steel the Opposition. The government lost its larger fight to produce volumes of documents for review, and she was forced to walk it back, promising to meet with the information commissioner to accommodate concerns.
Part of Hajdu’s troubles are that the real constitutional responsibility for delivering health care in a once-in-a-century pandemic lies with the provinces. And Hajdu curried no favour with provinces early on when she blamed all governments of all stripes for failing to properly fund public health.
The federal Liberal government, on the other hand, is nailed by provinces for not kicking in enough money to cover rising health budgets.
Part of Hajdu’s current struggle arises because the federal Liberal government has resisted naming any kind of independent review of its pandemic actions to date.
On Tuesday, Hajdu said an eventual review of all of Canada’s response “will be of critical importance to future governments… at all levels actually, on how to deal with emerging viruses.”
The 2004 SARS review, she acknowledged, was “very useful” and “I can only imagine the kind of recommendations that experts will have.” But when would that be appropriate? No answer.
Several with experience in such reviews don’t fault her for that.
Dr. David Walker, a professor of emergency and family medicine at Queen’s University who chaired Ontario’s expert panel on SARS and infectious disease control, said a review of the federal response “midflight” would distract key people from a daily and ongoing effort to contain COVID-19’s second wave.
He says we’re 300 days into a 1,000-day crisis. “The risk in doing a review in the middle of a double back flip is you’ll fall flat on your face, and maybe it would yield further confusing recommendations that will muddy the waters as well.”
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Besides, said Walker, “I think what’s going on is we’re actually reviewing in real time day-to-day” with experts in vaccine research, infectious disease control and public health constantly reviewing best practices here and abroad “that should be informing government as we go along.”
Still most agree Hajdu has a big target on her back.
One former senior official suggested the federal government should have invoked new legislative powers at the outset to demand provinces turn over more complete data sets to allow proper modelling and a more robust response from the start.
There’s little question that a big part of Hajdu’s recent political struggles is sheer COVID-19 fatigue.
Ten months into fighting a growing, not receding, health and economic threat, politicians and individual Canadians are desperate for a break in the bad news, and looking for someone to blame.
Enter Hajdu. Or rather, re-enter Hajdu.
As the second wave of COVID-19 infections rise, Hajdu is back in the spotlight, under intense pressure by the Opposition for more speedy regulatory approval and delivery of rapid COVID-19 test kits. Walker and others said Hajdu cannot order regulatory approvals anymore than U.S. President Donald Trump should be ordering the FDA to approve a vaccine.
It may be true but it’s not a good line for the Trudeau government to hit back with.
Hajdu had stepped backstage — if not offstage — in the late spring and summer months.
When COVID-19 first started rippling out across the globe, Hajdu, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, and Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, were the public-facing figures of the government’s response, which included airlifting thousands of Canadians out of China and other countries where they were quickly becoming stranded.
As Ottawa’s COVID-19 response ramped up Trudeau struck a COVID-19 cabinet committee to better co-ordinate actions, led by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Freeland and Trudeau took centre stage as did ministers on specific files like housing, employment or procurement took prominence, while Hajdu retreated.
Last weekend Hajdu was spotted — and photographed by an Alberta official — laughing at Toronto’s Pearson airport without a mask.
The photo hit Twitter, and Hajdu was forced to defend herself. On Tuesday, she said she was having a conversation and eating at the time. De-masking in that circumstance, she said, is in line with Toronto airport public health guidelines.
The question the Opposition is now asking is how long will Patty Hajdu survive.
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