We Need To Plan For The World After COVID-19

In this thoughtful piece below, Campbell Strategies business associate, Steven Bright, urges us to start to think now about post COVID-19 economic and social reconstruction. The last time Canada faced a similar challenge and opportunity was in the aftermath of World War II. We have to think about the future before we get there and Canada’s “best and brightest” need to be given this task.

Earlier this week, Bob Rae and Mel Cappe wrote an important editorial in The Globe and Mail about the need to confront the Covid-19 crisis collectively. “Canadians are facing the most serious economic and social crisis since the end of the Second World War,” they wrote. “It affects us all, wherever we live in the country.”

Looking back to that war, we can see several examples of collective thinking and action in light of a massively expensive and psychologically terrifying global challenge. The Committee on Reconstruction is one such example.

A volunteer collection of leading academics, business executives and labour representatives, the Committee was created by the Mackenzie King government not long after three things became very clear to the so-called “mandarins” in Ottawa responsible for Canada’s inchoate war effort:

  1. the rapidly expanding global war would be very costly;
  2. its duration and outcome were both very uncertain;
  3. and the impacts of war on the daily lives of Canadians would get worse before they got better.

This committee, in short, was told to focus on the future while the government fought the present.

That imperative certainly echoes in the current Covid-19 crisis. Considering the growing and morphing challenges posed by the pandemic, I think the Trudeau government should establish such a reconstruction committee now.

Planning to plan

In 1939, the need to plan was evident to Mackenzie King and his top officials within days of the outbreak of war. They quickly set up the Economic Advisory Committee (EAC) as they cranked up the machinery of government.
Yet plan for what? The EAC looked at critical issues such as food exports to Britain and labour deployment in Canada. But these were matters of the here and now. Looming challenges – those beyond immediate view – required some attention, too.

In early February, 1941, a Cabinet committee was asked to “invite the help of one or two of our ablest and distinguished citizens” to study post-war planning. But in order to do so, as a Cabinet memo at the time outlined, it may be “necessary to go outside the ranks of the public service at this time, since members of the public service are already under pressure of war work, and it is wise to look on the problem in a broad way.”

Enter the Committee on Reconstruction, chaired by McGill Principal Cyril James (and the topic of my M.A. thesis at Royal Military College in 2005).
James’ committee, set up a few days after that discussion in Cabinet, was tasked by The Hon. Ian Mackenzie, Minister of National Health and Pensions, to “review the general question of post-war reconstruction and to make recommendations as to what government facilities should be established to deal with this question.”

Armed with a clear mandate and given (most of) the necessary resources to take on their work, the Committee members raced forward. A subsequent Order in Council on 9 September, 1941 further expanded their mandate, instructing Committee members to “collect, receive, and arrange information with regard to reconstruction policies in Canada and abroad.”

Intellectual heavy lifting in a crisis

Over the following two and a half years the Committee covered a vast landscape of policy issues. Indeed, they took on the intellectual heavy lifting in several areas of post-war reconstruction planning, such as agriculture, industry, labour, women in the workforce, the machinery of government, international trade and, more broadly, Canada’s role in the post-war global economy.

Along the way they produced several influential several reports and recommendations in consultation with countless individuals and organizations in Canada, the United States and Britain.

This includes the Marsh Report – commissioned by the Committee and written by Leonard Marsh in six weeks – which laid much of the foundation of Canada’s post-war social safety net.

As well, the Committee was mid-wife to the Ministry of Reconstruction, of which C.D. Howe, the so-called “Minister of Everything”, was in charge, as Parli.ca , a valuable online dictionary of Canadian political phrases, points out. Moreover, the Committee focused on post-war reconstruction issues while the government itself was seized with the paramount goal of winning the war in the first place.

Personality clashes and turf wars

Despite their planning successes, it was not entirely smooth running for the Committee on Reconstruction.

Personalities often clashed in policy turf wars, and the erasable James frequently rubbed the mandarins the wrong way. Despite having a very similar academic pedigree to the likes of O.D. Skelton, Clifford Clark and Arnold Heeney, James was not one of them. And he never would be.

Resident in Montreal, he didn’t live in the Rockcliffe area of Ottawa that was home to so many mandarins. Nor did he have their thorough understanding of the machinery of Mackenzie King’s government, or intuitively understand the political realities and nuances that shaped and fueled this machinery. The Prime Minister himself was no fan of James either, calling him “an ass” on occasion.
Faced with a volunteer committee they felt was starting to get in their way, the mandarins slowly but effectively steered James and his committee out of the fast lane of post-war planning and onto the bumpy shoulder. After all, it was the era of the “dollar a year” man, with many other leaders outside of government stepping up to help out. A wide range of wartime committees sprang up, edging the James Committee to the side by the end of 1943.

The value (and challenges) of committees

The story of James et al. shows that committees have their time and place during crises:

  • they throw resources at a range of important issues
  • they shed light on policy blindspots
  • they help frame thinking, policies and structures designed to help lift the country and its residents out of and beyond the gravity of downward-spiraling challenges
  • they are force multipliers for governments under a multitude of strains
  • but committees also take managing.

Today, as the Covid-19 crisis rages on with no end in sight, I believe it’s time for the Trudeau government to establish a Committee on Reconstruction comprising a range of a “dollar a year” Canadians.

History suggests this would work. And the present suggests it’s an investment work making right away.

– By Steven Bright