The Conservative government is trying to put the focus on consumer issues in what is likely the last throne speech before a scheduled 2015 election. Many people are watching for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to use the speech, which will be delivered by Gov. Gen. David Johnston, to reset the agenda and try to take the focus off recent scandals.
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The setting alone for the throne speech will make for an interesting dynamic: It's delivered in the Senate, the chamber where a handful of inhabitants have created a major spending scandal.
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Harper has been faced with nearly a year of allegations over expenses claimed by senators he appointed: Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin are all being investigated by the RCMP. Mac Harb, who was appointed by the Liberals, is also under investigation, but has retired in the wake of the allegations against him.
Opposition MPs were critical of the delay in returning from the summer break after Harper prorogued Parliament for an extra month to prepare the throne speech. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair argued the government was simply trying to avoid questions about the Senate and that the prime minister doesn't want to be accountable to the opposition or to Canadians.
The House hasn't sat since June 19.
At the same time, Wednesday's throne speech is likely to be the last one before a scheduled October 2015 election. After three years of budget cuts, and with the government trying to balance the budget by then, what can they do to take attention off the Senate and blur the memory of several years of service cuts?
One way is to announce several consumer-friendly proposals to grab Canadians' attention. Even better for the government, the measures likely won't cost it anything, leaving industry — and likely consumers — to bear it.
Here are six proposals to watch for.
1. A nod to the Senate scandal
Reporters have been told not to expect anything in the throne speech on Senate reform, a major platform point for the Conservatives and a hot issue once again because of the spending allegations against Brazeau, Duffy, Harb and Wallin. But it will be hard to get through a speech inside the Senate chamber without at least mentioning that Harper has asked the Supreme Court how much the government can reform the upper chamber without opening up the Constitution.
2. More on the crime agenda
Harper announced during the summer break a number of provisions he intends to bring to the House, including tougher penalties for child sex offenders and new notification requirements for sex offenders travelling outside of Canada.
Some of those measures were previewed in the 2011 throne speech, as well as in the party's 2011 election platform.
3. Reform for First Nations education
The government is poised to introduce a First Nations education bill this fall that it would like to see implemented by September 2014. To that end, First Nations education reform is expected to be featured in Wednesday's throne speech, and will also be the centrepiece of this government's aboriginal policy going forward.
In an interview with CBC News last Tuesday, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said aboriginal policy will focus on education, skills development and improving the lives of aboriginal families living on reserves.
4. Unbundling cable TV channels and capping domestic roaming fees
Industry Minister James Moore told CBC News that the government wants to "put consumers first in the Canadian marketplace."
"We want to make sure that roaming fees are capped and that they are moving down. That is already the case internationally, we want to keep roaming fees down domestically as well in this country," he said, referring to the Wireless Code of Conduct announced last spring by the CRTC.
Several telecommunications companies are challenging part of that code of conduct in Federal Court.
Moore says the government also wants to make sure no one has to pay for channels they don't want through bundled cable TV packages. That's something else the CRTC had put forward, but the details weren't yet clear.
5. Helping travellers
The government is also expected to announce a passenger bill of rights for air travellers.
Moore said while he's a free-market guy, "from time to time, [consumer] anger needs to be addressed."
"When airlines are selling 175 seats on 165 seat plane and 10 people show up and they're turned away for a ticket that they paid for … they played by the rules and airlines just treat consumers that way, I think people get frustrated and they expect action."
The details aren't clear yet, but it all adds up to a lot of regulation for a government that bills itself as conservative. This idea, in fact, was first proposed by the NDP — and was shot down in the House.
At the time, Pierre Poilievre, then parliamentary secretary to the minister of transport, said the best way to handle airline complaints was through word of mouth.
"On this side of the House, we believe in maximum choice and competition. We believe in empowering customers. The NDP believes in empowering bureaucracy. We believe in allowing business to run business. The NDP wants to run everyone else's business," Poilievre said last February.
Mulcair says the Conservatives have voted "at every turn" against measures to protect consumers.
"This might be a reflection of the fact that they've done some deep polling and they realize Canadians are tired of being gouged at the gas pump, tired of being gouged at the ATM, tired of being gouged by their credit card companies and it's about time the government acted, but they've never done it in the past," he said to CBC News.
6. Vendor fees on credit cards
The government will also do something to cap the fees the vendors pay when customers use their credit cards.
"There's real frustration, particularly with small and medium-size businesses, with the fees that are charged to small businesses for having credit card services in their stores, and we can do better," Moore said.
The Competition Bureau challenged the credit card companies on this, but a federal tribunal ruled the federal government needed to regulate the issue.