Trust is the Foundation of Authority

Commentary, COVID-19, Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

The heartbreaking death of Nathanael Spitzer, the cancer-stricken boy from Ponoka, exposed a most callous streak in Alberta’s medical bureaucracy. There is no forgiving how Alberta Health Services appallingly used a child’s death to promote yet more COVID-19 fear. 

However, one should dismiss the empty promise from Alberta’s chief medical officer of health to process deaths of minors scrupulously before reporting in future. It’s empty because the percentage of COVID-19 deaths among children is almost zero in Alberta and all other reporting remains the same. 

Her apology raises the question of trust in public authority: Do Albertans trust health bureaucrats and their elected bosses? The question of trust is important. Trust is a key link between rulers and the ruled. When the population has no trust in public officials, such officials govern without support. Without trust, rulers rule by imposition, merely enforcing and punishing; and when support is lacking, harsher enforcement becomes necessary for compliance.

As governments coerce more, their authority is further undermined. Coercion signals an absence of authority. The harsher use of coercive power is what happens when consent and trust are low. 

Trust was an early casualty when governments in Canada reacted to the COVID-19 threat by immediately copying Beijing in imposing draconian lockdowns, but without protecting the most vulnerable. The harsh confinement rules are condescendingly undemocratic. They showed from the start that governments don’t trust their citizens to do what is right without oppressing them with fears and power.  

People will respect rulers because they trust the sources of their authority: 1) the constitution and laws, 2) knowledge and competence, and 3) sound decision-making. Since March 2020, these three authority sources have been battered in the handling of the COVID-19 threat. Ottawa and the provinces seem unaware how they have consistently undermined their own authority. 

First, our Constitution and laws have been repeatedly bruised with an unchecked and unwarranted expansion of government powers including: 

  • The disregard for due process; 
  • The weakening of Parliament; 
  • Persecutions and at times brutal police arrests;
  • The choking of free expression and assembly; 
  • The trampling of mobility and workers’ rights; 
  • The violations of medical privacy; 
  • The not so veiled defilement of bodily sovereignty; and
  • The dismissal of the emergency management authority that opened up society to the domination of a kind of medical-industrial complex. 

Second, one expects the government to know how to competently govern in emergencies. Despite the early panic, Canadians hoped their governments would be competent in rolling out pandemic action plans, clearly executing objectives and creating exit strategies for the crisis. Instead, the policy itself became a crisis. Governments quickly dismissed existing emergency plans and hatched new ones in panic and on the fly. They had no (and still do not have, 19 months later) reasonable objectives or an exit strategy. Reaching herd immunity all hinged on vaccines. Sadly, the vaccines’ immunity doesn’t last and cannot lead to herd immunity. So, governments choose to force vaccination and to marginalize those who refuse it instead of tackling the growing gap in trust.

The key to good government, when all else is in place, is good judgment. But good judgment has been absent almost uniformly across the country (for a brief time, it seemed Alberta might be the exception). There has been poor judgment in the choices and ad hockery of policy response to the virus. Erratic decisions never signal sound judgment. Let’s grant that things change quickly during crises, but the crass imposition of tenuous things, although presented as absolute science time and time again, can never inspire confidence. To the contrary, flip-flopping increases confusion among most and defiance among many. There has been even poorer judgment in the divisive blaming, the thoughtless name-calling and the gaslighting lies, primarily against those who dare to question or protest the haphazard decisions.

Always playing to the crowd, Alberta’s premier says he cannot understand why some persist in their belief about Ivermectin’s validity or why they won’t vaccinate. But that crowd is volatile. While the fears in which governments are foraging for support will eventually cease, the divisive abuses heaped on the vaccine-recalcitrant will continue to erode public trust—and the trust lost about competence and judgment won’t likely be regained. 

In the first week of October alone, the executive, the judicial and the medical bureaucracies failed Albertans again. The torqued blaming and punishing of the unvaxxed, an Alberta justice’s offensive decision hammering defiant preacher Artur Pawlowski and the naked attempt to manipulate the tragic death of young Nathanael Spitzer are all bold demonstrations of power still eroding trust.


Marco Navarro-Génie is president of the Haultain Research Institute and senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. With Barry Cooper, he is co-author of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels.