Back to the future with the throne speech

It's a good thing Stephen Harper likes Canadian history, Chris Hall writes. As the upper chamber and the expenses scandal still swirling around a handful of Harper-appointed senators make an unwanted backdrop for the prime minister's intended message of stability and continuity.

It looks to be a speech about resilience, too bad it has to take place in the Senate

Throne speech preview

9 years ago
Duration 4:10
Conservatives to throw consumers a bone in Wednesday's legislative plan for the fall

Stephen Harper's government loves to celebrate Canadian history, and that's a good thing. Otherwise the prime minister would almost certainly dispense with the tradition of reading the speech from the throne in the Senate.

The upper chamber and the expenses scandal still swirling around a handful of Harper-appointed senators make an unwanted backdrop for the prime minister's intended message of stability and continuity.

The setting is an even more unwelcome reminder that he didn't fulfill his own, past commitments to reform the Senate.

But that's where the prime minister will be on Wednesday, seated before MPs and senators, Supreme Court justices and other dignitaries, listening as Gov. Gen. David Johnston gives voice to the government's priorities for the next two years.

If much of what the Governor General reads sounds familiar, that's because it will be.

The focus will remain on jobs and economic growth. On promoting families and Canadian values. On making communities safer.

And, yes, the speech will play up plans to commemorate historic Canadian events, including the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag, all leading up to 2017 and Canada's 150thbirthday.

There may also be a surprise or two — who can forgot the 2010 promise to rewrite the lyrics of O Canada to render them gender neutral — though one expects the prime minister learned a lesson after being forced to drop the idea faster than you can say "in all thy sons command."

But there's little Harper can say, or do, on the one issue where the past collides with his future: Senate reform.

'Pro-consumer government'

The prime minister has already referred questions about reforming the Senate to the Supreme Court of Canada. The hearing is not scheduled until later this fall, with a decision not likely until sometime next year.

For weeks, there has been buzz in Ottawa that the prime minister's office is toying with the idea of calling a referendum on abolishing the Senate.

But any kind of pre-emptive political strike would appear to pre-judge the Supreme Court judges, and is unlikely to make it into tomorrow's address.

So what then does the prime minister do with this seventh throne speech since taking office in 2006.

For one, he needs to reassure the Conservative base that the government remains committed to the core principles of sound fiscal management and economic growth.

That's the brand, and while it may be tarnished by slow job growth and a still sluggish manufacturing sector, it isn't damaged beyond repair.

You can also expect the speech to restate the Harper government's commitment to eliminate the deficit in the near future, to keep taxes low, to continue the development of the energy and resource sectors, and to continue negotiations on those elusive free trade deals with the European Union and others.

This is 'a pro-consumer government,' Employment Minister Jason Kenney says. Opposition parties have a different take. (Canadian Press)

These are the fundamental building blocks to underscore the sound management theme that the government intends to strike.

The focus on consumers also fits here, including promises to unbundle cable television services so people don't have to pay for stations they don't watch, and reducing cellphone roaming fees charged by the big telcoms.

Putting consumers first is the kind of message that sells well on Main Street and to Conservative supporters across the country.

''This is a pro-consumer government,'' Employment Minister Jason Kenney told CBC Radio's The House on Saturday.

''We are not looking at radical changes that would destabilize the economy, We are looking at moving the pendulum more in consumers' interests.''

'Wedge' the opposition

This pro-consumer focus is also part of a wider effort to drive a wedge between the Conservatives and the opposition parties in the lead up to the next election.

The New Democrats, as the CBC's Rosemary Barton wrote last week, are long-time proponents of an airline passenger bill of rights and a cap on credit card fees.

Incorporating those ideas in the throne speech would put the Official opposition in an awkward spot: support the government or oppose your own ideas.

The same can be said about the Conservative's plan to create jobs and close the gap between people looking for work and the skilled jobs in the resources sector that now, more often than not, are filled by temporary foreign workers.

The Canada Job Grant, unveiled in the spring budget, proposes that the feds, provinces and employers each kick in a one-third share, to a total of $15,000, to train individuals for specific jobs.

The plan mightily irritates the premiers who see it as an unwarranted intrusion into their jurisdictions, and as a way to siphon off federal payments to other labour market programs.

But it's won support from business and labour organizations, setting up a battle Ottawa feels it can win.

And then there's the program first unveiled in the budget to ensure young members of First Nations can benefit from resource development near their communities.

The First Nations Job Fund requires mandatory participation for people now receiving income assistance.

The opposition calls it work fare for natives. The government sells it as the quickest way to get residents of reserves into the labour market.

Tone will be everything

Throne speeches, of course, are only a broad outline of what a government intends, a bucket list with the completed boxes still to be checked off.

Even so, the tone has to be right, especially in this case with the Senate scandal still alive, the long, self-serving delay in reconvening Parliament fresh in people's minds and the perceived need to put the government on some kind of wedge-politics election footing.

To that end, the dramatic flooding in Southern Alberta and the train disaster at Lac Megantic will both be acknowledged.

Conservative insiders say it's an appropriate opportunity to praise the resilience of those affected, and to announce plans for improving rail safety and emergency relief programs for victims of such disasters.

Harper, too, has shown a certain resilience in the face of adversity. Tomorrow's speech from the throne will attempt to sell consumers, the middle class and families that the future is brighter, even as it recycles familiar themes from the past.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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