While the Harper government is spending over $1 billion on a grandiose new headquarters for a spy agency, it is promising to freeze the federal budget and turn the screws on the rest of the public service. 

The budget freeze was one of the few newsworthy promises outlined in Wednesday’s throne speech, and alone will force the government to slash jobs and services. That is on top of the almost $20 billion of cuts already announced. 

The country’s more than 300,000 federal workers are clearly in the government’s sights. 

The government says it recognizes the value of a “lean” public service with pay and benefits that are “reasonable, responsible and in the public interest.”

Government workers will be subjected to “performance accountability” to provide “better service to Canadians at a reduced cost.” 

Tough talk ‘a bit rich’

While all this tough talk of austerity is getting high praise from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, it may be a bit rich coming from a government that ran up record increases in spending and public service hiring even before the economic crash in 2008. 

Most of the 25-page throne speech is a compendium of platitudes, warmed-over promises, and even New Democratic Party campaign promises from the last election — an NDP researcher counts nearly a dozen of them. 

While these oratorical drones from the throne have become typically devoid of headline-grabbing news, the latest one fails to deliver on even the Harper government’s own pre-release spin. 

For instance, in a weekend interview with CBC News and other media outlets, Industry Minister James Moore promised the throne speech would be “consumer friendly,” including measures to crack down on airlines that overbook flights and just bump passengers with valid tickets. 

“I think people get frustrated and they expect action, and we plan to act,” Moore told CBC. 

‘Consumer-first’ measures

Others in the Harper government torqued the story into a planned “air travellers’ bill of rights.”

The proposal understandably garnered big headlines on the weekend and no doubt hit a happy note with air travellers, but the actual throne speech mentioned not a word of it.

Moore did outline two other “consumer-first” measures that actually showed up in the throne speech—promises to reduce cellular roaming charges within Canada, and giving television viewers the ability to buy programming they want without paying for bundles of stations they never watch. 

What neither the minister nor the throne speech mentioned is the independent federal regulator – the CRTC – is already dealing with cellular roaming charges and consumer choice in TV programming. 

If the Harper government does nothing, the problems will likely get solved.

If nothing else, the throne speech should cause plenty of eye-rolling in the defence industries. The government that has presided over a series of military procurement disasters is now proclaiming it will “work in partnership with industry to ensure that all major military purchases create high-quality jobs for Canadian workers.” 

So what’s the point of all the pomp and puffery of the throne speech?

Maybe nothing. Hours before the Governor General began reciting the speech in the Senate chamber, the prime minister tweeted that Canada had all but closed a massive trade deal with the European Union. 

So profoundly upstaging his own throne speech may have been Harper’s admission there wasn’t a lot to upstage.

Changing the channel

Politically, the government is clearly hoping to change the channel, to distract the attention of Canadian voters away from the corrosive deluge of Senate spending controversies and other problems besieging the Harper administration. 

Taken in isolation, the throne speech certainly offers shiny objects for everyone, from victims of crime getting a bill of rights, to drinkers being allowed to transport a case of beer across provincial lines (if you didn’t already know, that’s illegal). 

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, reality keeps getting in the way of a good story. 

For instance, the government promises to introduce electoral reform legislation to “uphold the integrity” of the voting system. 

Truth is, the scandal over robocalls and many of the election spending irregularities being investigated by Elections Canada have primarily swirled around the Conservatives, and past promises by this government to bring in much-needed reforms have so far amounted to nothing. 

The opposition parties, of course, have no intention of letting Canadians be distracted by a throne speech. 

To be sure, the NDP and Liberals will waste no time opening the new session of Parliament with questions about the prime minister’s truthfulness in the Senate scandal. 

In other words, whatever the government hoped to achieve by keeping Parliament shuttered for an extra month of prorogation, the more things changed, the more they have stayed the same.