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Tories tilt Parliament to the right with Throne Speech

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with Governor-General Michaelle Jean before the Speech from the Throne in the Senate chamber in Ottawa on March 3, 2010.


Stephen Harper's government returned to Parliament with an aggressively conservative agenda designed to shape the national debate in the months before the next election.

Massive deficits and an uncertain economy freed the Conservatives to deliver a Speech from the Throne Wednesday that seeks to freeze the operating spending of government departments, deregulate industry and open protected industries to foreign investment.

With this, Mr. Harper has laid down the gauntlet to opposition parties, signalling his intent to govern as a conservative in a minority Commons.

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The hour-long Throne Speech that Governor-General Michaëlle Jean read to reopen a long-prorogued Parliament would allow foreign control of telecommunications companies, freeze the salaries and administration budgets of all government departments, and reshape the refugee-determination system to discourage false claimants. It even proposes tinkering with the words of O Canada.

And it trumpeted Conservative themes of law-and-order and overt patriotism, promising tougher sentences for sex crimes against children and a new generation of war memorials.

The speech also included cheers for the Vancouver Olympics. Canada's athletes will get a further boost in the federal budget, which will double Ottawa's previous commitment of $11-million for the Own the Podium program for elite athletes, government sources said.

That extra money will replace the $11-million that was previously contributed by VANOC, the committee that ran the Games.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the speech contained too much "empty" symbolism and rehash.

There was not enough ambition to be the "recalibrated" agenda Mr. Harper promised to justify proroguing Parliament from December until March, he said.

"We shut down Parliament for this? This is recalibration? It looks more like regurgitation to me," Mr. Ignatieff said. But he indicated he won't defeat the government on the speech. "I don't hear anybody screaming for an election," he said.

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The Throne Speech pledge to deliver a second year of stimulus spending was overshadowed by a message of restraint.

"Canadians live within their means and expect their governments to do the same. Spending designed for a rainy day should not become an all-weather practice," it said.

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Government departments will have their operating budgets frozen - the "total amount spent on salaries, administration and overhead."

"There's going to be a spending freeze, and it looks as though there's going to be a salary freeze as well," said a worried Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

Details on when the freeze starts, and how hard it will hit, are still to come in Thursday's budget.

"It's basically a freeze on spending in all operations. It is the big spending number and we are freezing," said Treasury Board President Stockwell Day.

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In a symbolic measure, ministers will also have their office budgets and salaries frozen, and MPs and senators will be asked to follow suit.

An aggressive review of government programs that could face cuts will follow, the Tories promised, pledging only that pensions and transfers for health and education will be untouched.

It was an agenda heavily laden with promises to cut red tape, notably for small business and oil companies. Energy and mining projects will be freed from a "daunting maze of deregulations," the speech said - a pledge, according to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, to reduce multiple layers of reviews, including environmental reviews, that discourage investments.

The government also promised to "open Canada's doors" to foreign investment in the satellite and telephone industries, removing restrictions that have long limited foreign companies to minority stakes.

Promises to expand science spending, and back development of next-generation surveillance satellites aimed at the Far North, featured in proposals to invest in job-creating technology development.

And beyond the economy, the Throne Speech provided a long list of measures to allow the Harper government an opportunity to set the political agenda, after a fall session when opposition MPs took to offence, particularly on probing the treatment of Afghan detainees. The speech can stand as the Tory manifesto leading into the next election, which many expect this fall.

There were few sops to the parties to the Tories' left: A proposal to expand the $100-a-month childcare benefit for single mothers was the only social-program sweetener.

The opposition complained that more should have been done to create jobs and combat poverty - NDP Leader Jack Layton said the government had decided that putting people back to work is no longer essential. Critics also complained there were no steps to regulate greenhouse gases.

"In a couple of places, some silences are pretty amazing," Mr. Ignatieff said.

A controversial proposal to reform Canada's refugee-determination system, which the government promised last year when it imposed visitors visas on Mexicans and Czechs but then delayed, will go ahead.

Although it was not detailed in the speech, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has suggested he would cut layers of appeals in the hope that a quick decision will discourage false claimants from trying to stay years in Canada - a proposal likely to raise opposition objections.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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