What will be in the first Conservative speech from the throne?
By Ira Basen, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Jan. 24, 2006 | More Reality Check
When Joe Clark was elected with a minority government in May 1979, he waited until October to meet the House.
It�s hard to blame a guy for wanting to learn the ropes before throwing himself into the fray. But in retrospect, many observers believe that by waiting so long, Clark lost the momentum created by his election win. Since then, new governments have generally waited less than three months before facing the House. Expect Stephen Harper to continue this pattern.
That means that in all likelihood, sometime in early April, Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean will deliver the first speech from the throne written by a Conservative government since 1993. It will set out the new government�s legislative agenda, and will almost certainly mirror the 46-page "Stand Up for Canada" platform that the Conservatives trumpeted during the campaign. The party made a total of 242 promises on the hustings, so some priorities will clearly have to be set.
|Stephen Harper delivers his election speech, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006. (CP photo)
And in spite of all its regal pomp and splendour, the speech from the throne is essentially a political document, especially in a minority Parliament. It is both the final shot of the last campaign and the opening salvo of the next one, so let the political posturing begin! The speech will invariably provoke a vote of no confidence, and as in the last Parliament, the opposition parties will huff and puff and pretend they are going to blow the House down, but that won�t happen. Having won the most seats, the governing party has earned the right to begin to implement the platform it was elected on. And besides, the only party with anything to gain from a quick return to the polls would be the Conservatives, who would campaign on their need for a majority to end the political gamesmanship.
Harper has repeatedly said that his first order of business will be to introduce the Federal Accountability Act. It has been billed as "a sweeping plan to clean up government." There will new restrictions on the power of lobbyists, new auditors hired and more money given to the auditor general, and a new, stronger, ethics commissioner will be appointed.
There will be much attention paid in the first months of the Harper government to exposing the sins of the previous regime, and making the evil-doers pay. There will be investigations launched, and a director of public prosecutions appointed. They will not allow the issue of Liberal corruption to disappear from view simply because this election campaign is over. There is, after all, always the next campaign to be fought.
The first throne speech will also highlight the Conservatives� tough "law and order" plank of their election platform. They will increase mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes, lower the age at which a young offender can be tried in adult court from 16 to 14, and raise the age of sexual consent (to be renamed the "Age of Protection") from 14 to 16. They will also provide money for additional police, and equip border guards with sidearms. And, there will be no more talk about decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
» Jan. 5, 2006: Doing the crime and doing the time by Ira Basen
Health care and the environment
On the health-care front, the Conservative government will pledge to work with the provinces to develop a patient wait-times guarantee. On the environment, the government will announce plans for a "made-in-Canada" solution to the problem of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, including a clean air act to reduce smog-causing pollutants. The new government will come under sharp criticism at home and abroad for abandoning Canada�s commitment to the Kyoto accord, and will want to present itself as being as "green" as possible in order to deflect some of that criticism.
» Jan. 18, 2006: What happens if the Tories walk away from Kyoto? by Robert Sheppard
Harper will also be under some pressure to indicate what direction he plans to take on aboriginal issues. In November, leaders of the federal, provincial and territorial governments, and the leaders of five major aboriginal groups, reached a historic agreement in Kelowna B.C. The deal called for the federal government to spend more than $5 billion over the next five years on native housing, education and other issues. During the campaign, Harper said he agreed with the principles of the Kelowna accord, but wanted to take another look at the spending commitment. Native leaders will be paying close attention to the throne speech, looking for clues as to what the new government has in store for them.
» Jan. 17, 2006: Aboriginal Policy by Ira Basen
And then there is the contentious issue of same-sex marriage. Will it find its way into the first Conservative throne speech? Probably yes. The new prime minister will be under considerable pressure from his caucus to bring a resolution confirming the "traditional" definition of marriage to the floor of the House for a vote. At this point, the vote looks like it would be close. No one knows how the 68 new MPs elected last night will vote. Harper has said that he will consider the same-sex issue "in due course," but from a political standpoint, exposing those divisions within the Liberal caucus will be useful to the new government.
And there is another way that the same-sex issue might be helpful to the Conservatives. During the campaign, a group of 100 constitutional law experts wrote to Harper urging him to refer his proposed legislation to the Supreme Court of Canada before taking a vote in the House. "It appears to be your intention to pass a law that you know is almost certainly unconstitutional and then leave it to the courts to clean up the mess," the lawyers wrote.
But that might be exactly what the Conservatives are hoping for. A judgment on same-sex marriage that goes against the expressed wishes of Parliament will be useful during the next campaign when the inevitable discussions of "judge made law" and "activist courts" arise.
What will be in the first Conservative budget?
A speech from the throne in April will likely mean the first Conservative budget will be delivered sometime before Victoria Day. It will not contain many surprises. The Conservative platform called for nearly $45 billion in tax cuts and more than $30 billion in spending over the next five years, and was pretty clear on what the new government�s first priorities will be.
The highlight of the first budget will be the reduction of the GST from seven to six per cent. The interesting question will be what the Conservatives do with the Liberal cuts to personal income tax that Canadians began to enjoy on Jan. 1. The Conservatives are planning to reverse those cuts, but when? Will they allow us to get the benefits of both the GST cut and the tax cuts until the end of the year? Don�t count on it. The GST cut will cost the treasury about $4.5 billion in its first year, while the Liberal cut will cost about $5.1 billion. Enjoying both cuts at the same time would be great for consumers, but bad for the new government�s balance sheet. So expect personal taxes to rise when the GST falls. According to most economists, if you earn less than $10,000 or more than $100,000, you�ll come out ahead with the GST cut. Otherwise, you be better off with lower income taxes. And while personal income tax will be going up, corporate taxes will be going down, which is why it is not likely that the NDP will be standing up for this budget.
» Jan. 17, 2006: Taxing inquiries by Robert Sheppard
You can also expect to see in this budget some of the Conservatives' high-profile tax credits that were announced. Things like money back for public transit users and for kids enrolled in organized sports. The soon-to-be prime minister will want to make sure those government cheques start flowing as quickly as possible. Which is why another big-ticket item likely to be included will be the scrapping of the national day-care program negotiated by the Liberals, to be replaced by a $1,200 cheque for every child five and under.
Dec. 30, 2005: The Conservatives' tax break for users of public transit: Is it enough to get commuters to leave their cars at home? by Ira Basen
» Jan. 13, 2006: Who cares about child care? by John Gray
Some tax measures, such as removing the capital gains tax on money reinvested within six months, might wait until later in the mandate. It was introduced to some confusion late in the campaign, and although it was presented as a way for Canadians to pass along family heirlooms, it had real estate flippers and stock market speculators licking their chops in anticipation.
On the spending side, the Conservative promises were more modest than those of the other parties. The one spending commitment almost certain to be included in the first budget will be an increase in money for defence. The Conservatives have pledged to add more than $5 billion to the defence budget over the next five years, and this budget will kick-start that proposal. There is also certain to be money to support the Conservatives' law-and-order platform, including more police and RCMP officers. The Conservatives plan to fund many of these initiatives by cancelling the controversial gun registry, but they will likely discover that the money saved by doing that will not be as much as they anticipate.
» Jan. 18, 2006: The real cost of scrapping the $2 billion gun registry by Karin Marley
Finally, one item that will be conspicuously absent from the first Conservative budget will be money to specifically address the much-discussed "fiscal imbalance" with the provinces. This is potentially the most expensive item in the whole Tory platform, and settling this longstanding grievance will require long and delicate negotiations. Harper has pledged to get these negotiations started early in his term, but it is unlikely they will have begun by the time the new finance minister rises in the House to present his first budget.
» Jan. 6, 2006: Should Stephen Harper be giving the provinces Ottawa's cash? by Robert Sheppard