It was as much a campaign kickoff as a Throne Speech. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government opened a new Parliamentary session by laying out a populist vision for the final two years of its majority mandate. The Speech from the Throne hit on a series of red-meat Conservative issues, including crime and slaying the deficit, while laying out a series of tangible, populist moves ultimately meant to woo voters – things like lower cellphone bills. The speech is meant to breathe new life into the governing party at a time when its poll numbers are sagging. These are some of the themes – and targets – of the Throne Speech.
CRACKING DOWN ON CELLPHONE BILLS, BANKING FEES
The government is wading into the private sector in an attempt to ease life for consumers. The Throne Speech pledged to reduce cellphone roaming fees, end cable TV bundling so viewers can pick channels they want, expand high-speed Internet access, slash bank bees, ban extra fees for getting a paper copy of a bill, reduce the gap between Canadian and U.S. prices and make it legal to take booze and beer over provincial borders.
Those roaming-charge cuts, bank-fee reductions and cable-TV overhauls are all bread-and-butter populist issues that don't cost much, if anything, as the government is trying to slash the deficit. They're trinkets designed to stick in a voter's mind come election day – tangible like the GST cut, but at far less cost. They're aimed at shoppers and families, rather than a particular region, age group or ethnic group.
Whether these changes will matter in the 2015 election depends on if they're actually made. Many hinge on how industry will respond. What banks will cut fees, and what fees will they cut? Which retailers will level out Canadian prices with American ones, and what happens if the dollar drops? Cable TV may be no cheaper for viewers who want more than a handful of channels. Cellphone fees are being partially addressed, but many extreme roaming charges happen outside the country, and the changes are only within Canada.
The Conservatives hope concrete steps for consumers will bolster the party's position on economic issues – but that's only if the changes get made. If they instead trigger a battle with industry, it could ultimately leave the Conservatives with little to show to consumers come campaign season.
BALANCING THE BOOKS
Balanced-budget legislation is coming to Ottawa, but the Throne Speech offered little detail as to what a federal bill would look like.
"It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis," the speech states. The bill would further highlight Ottawa's plan to erase the deficit by 2015, a pledge that was repeated in the speech.
The federal public service will be targeted for more savings through an operating budget freeze and the potential sale of federal assets. The Throne Speech also reiterates plans to curb public-sector benefits.
Balanced-budget bills are particularly popular in Western Canada. They tend to be supported by provincial conservatives who are worried about the size of government debt. The recent recession – coupled with the lost revenue from a two-point reduction in the goods and services tax – has led to large deficits in Ottawa. The balanced budget bill will be an effort to reassure supporters that a future of smaller government and balanced books is on the horizon.
Targeting the public service is part of the overall objective of eliminating the deficit, an accomplishment the Conservatives hope will be popular with a broad range of voters.
Several provinces already have varying degrees of balanced-budget laws, but they did not stop governments from sliding into deficit during the latest recession.
As for a new squeeze on the public service, the government has already saved more than $5-billion a year through several waves of restraint on job cuts. The Throne Speech language suggests the next moves won't be as aggressive. Still, unions note that morale is a growing concern in light of the continuing focus on restraint.
FIRST NATIONS AND EDUCATION
The federal government is promising indigenous people that they are in line for better jobs and education, that their treaty and land-claims will be settled and that they will live in more prosperous communities.
As expected, the government promised in the Throne Speech delivered Wednesday to "develop a stronger, more effective, and more accountable on-reserve education system" – an initiative that is already being condemned by some First Nations leaders as lacking consultation and funding.
One of the key agenda items for the government is resource development and the speech specified that aboriginal peoples must benefit. Indigenous leaders are threatening to block – literally, in some cases – development on their traditional land that is done without adequate compensation or consultation.
Although there was recognition in the speech that aboriginal women are disproportionately the victims of violent crime, there was no promise of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls that First Nations have been demanding.
But there was a promise to continue the dialogue on the treaty relationship and comprehensive land claims.
Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, pointed out after the speech that the government says it is interested in partnership with indigenous people.
"We're going to hold this government to those words, including in areas like education," said Mr. Atleo. "The only way forward that will succeed is when First Nations achieve full partnership in designing the approach in areas like education."
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The government wants to change the law "so that a life sentence means a sentence for life" and implement a series of long-promised changes aimed at punishing offenders and supporting victims' rights.
Under current laws, offenders who receive a life sentence for first-degree murder are not allowed to apply for parole until they have served at least 25 years. It was not immediately clear from the Throne Speech if the government plans to eliminate the possibility of parole for some offenders entirely or if it will seek to increase the ineligibility period.
Other tough-on-crime measures include a new victims' bill of rights, legislation on cyber bullying and the revival of a government bill introduced earlier this year that would limit the release options for certain high-risk individuals found not criminally responsible for a crime on account of a mental disorder.
The measures are likely to appeal to traditional Conservatives voters and those who advocate for a greater role for victims in the criminal justice system. And the inclusion of a promise to renew the government's emphasis on missing and murdered aboriginal women could help take some of the bite out of opposition calls for a formal inquiry into the issue.
Over the years, tough-on-crime policies – and particularly those aimed at punishing offenders and helping victims – have played well to the Conservative Party base, which is one reason justice issues have featured prominently in most throne speeches since 2006. The suggestion in Wednesday's Throne Speech that the government will make life sentences truly "for life" would likely appeal to many Conservative supporters and could draw wider support because of the focus on keeping those convicted of serious crimes off the streets. However, legal experts say that a move to end or severely limit parole eligibility could trigger a constitutional challenge.
THE PATRIOTISM PUSH
The promises The government wants to celebrate Canada's story, calling it "one of risk, sacrifice, and rugged determination." The goal is to build up a renewed sense of pride on the road to the country's 150th anniversary, including commemorating a number of other milestones between now and 2017.
The patriotic agenda includes a major emphasis on military achievements and a celebration of the North, and contains a few challenges to meet on the road to 2017. The government is promising to open the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Nunavut, and is vowing to work with "renewed determination" to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition. In addition, Ottawa will celebrate the 200th birthdays of founding fathers John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, build a memorial to the victims of Communism and launch the Canadian Museum of History.
In 2014, the government will commemorate the centennial of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, and it is also planning on re-dedicating the National War Memorial in Ottawa "to the memory of all men and women who fought for our country."
Not everyone enjoyed the barrage of ads that accompanied the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, but the celebrations helped to reinforce the Conservative Party's vision of the origins of Canada. The next round of celebrations will also be appreciated by Canadians who feel pride in honouring this country's achievements, but the plans might fail to resonate with those who prefer to have a more critical look at the country's past, or do not appreciate a more American-style patriotism.
No one will attack the federal government for getting ready to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary. Still, Ottawa must strike the right balance to ensure that Canadians don't get tired of the event before it actually happens. The government needs to have learned lessons from the War of 1812 campaign, and apply them to the future celebrations.
The Tories are promising "targeted action" on rail safety after a train carrying crude oil derailed and crashed into Lac-Mégantic last July, killing 47 people.
The government will also require shippers and railways to carry better insurance to make sure they can deal with the costs of a serious accident. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, the company whose train derailed, was holding just $25-million in third-party liability insurance at the time of the accident – a fraction of the expected cleanup costs.
The Canadian Transportation Agency indicated last month that it was conducting a review on the quantity of insurance railways should be required to carry.
Ottawa will also work with provinces and territories on a new program aimed at reducing the impact of natural disasters.
The government opened the Throne Speech with a moment of silence for victims of the crash in Lac-Mégantic but did not announce any specific measures for aiding the small Quebec town. Instead, the speech indicated that the government will "continue to support" citizens of Lac-Mégantic and flood-affected communities in Alberta.
Ottawa announced $60-million to the decontamination efforts earlier this summer, but federal officials have since steered clear of specific financial commitments. The total cleanup bill is expected to significantly exceed $200-million.
OIL AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The government wants to get oil and gas to new export markets, attract foreign investment while ensuring resources are not controlled by foreign governments, and "protect against spills and other risks to the environment and local communities." The goal is to keep the oil and gas sector humming, all while tightening safety and environmental rules. The Throne Speech pledged to crack down on polluters such as resource companies by making them pay, and continued to loudly argue for pipelines in order to give oil and gas companies a way to reach new export markets.
While pushing for pipelines, the government also pledged to "set higher safety standards for companies operating offshore as well as those operating pipelines, and increase the required liability insurance."
The policies are designed to please both the energy sector and its opponents – or at least those troubled by some of the negative consequences tied to development. The government made it clear it wants pipelines, but also tossed environmentalists a bone by pledging to tighten safety standards. The Throne Speech once again said Canada is open to foreign investment so long as it is "market-oriented" and in the best "long-term interests of Canadians." By hitting both these points in one sentence, the government is trying to comfort free-marketers, all while reassuring folks who want Canada's resources more carefully guarded that the Conservatives will still put Canadians first.
Oil and gas policies will always prove divisive. These new energy policies will not win over environmental hardliners – but the Harper government isn't worried about those voters. It knows they are out of reach, and appeasing them would be a betrayal for the base.