Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

In Depth

Robert Sheppard

Reality Check

Talk-talk: Stephen Harper's make-work way for surviving minority government

CBC News Online | April 4, 2006

As speeches from the throne go, this one was short but not that short. Governor General Michäelle Jean waxed on in her elegant way for a good 20 minutes or so and as she rolled down to the conclusion it became happily apparent that there was still a kitchen-sink quality to this address, as there has been with so many of its predecessors.

Making nice to Quebec Premier Jean Charest, and keeping lots of dialogue going with the provinces, is one way for Stephen Harper to keep his minority government alive. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In the end it was almost comforting to realize that, in the final hours before this speech was rushed off to the printers, senior ministers and wily bureaucrats apparently succeeded in cramming more of their pet projects onto the tight ship Stephen Harper.

The expectation

We had all come to this opening act of the new Conservative minority government conditioned to expect the by now, well-rehearsed Five Priorities of the Harper era and not much more. And there they were, of course, the Big Five, right off the top: A new government accountability act (to be unveiled probably next week); the one percentage point cut to the GST; the crackdown on crime; the $100-a-month gift to families with young children; and the hospital wait times guarantee.

But those who were suggesting an auspiciously tight (the five plus maybe one) legislative agenda may be spreading mustard on their crow sandwiches right now. By my count, this is a five plus nine agenda in the making, maybe even a five plus 10 if you throw in the unusually flowery overture to the government of Quebec and its national assembly.

FULL THRONE SPEECH COVERAGE

Reality check

On the government's to-do list, albeit still to be fleshed out: Senate and institutional reform, foreign policy realignment, greenhouse gas reductions (huh?), new farm stabilization plans, civil service reforms, and an apology to the Chinese community for the head tax.

At first glance, this looks like a fairly complete legislative program. Something you'd think would challenge all the government's dexterity in surviving the vagaries of a minority parliament. Then again …

The talk-talk reality show

Look closely at the projects the Harper government is putting forward for the next, say, several months and most don't lend themselves to the kind of parliamentary brinkmanship that have broken the backs of minority governments in the past.

Sure, the GST and the day-care changes will require budgetary approval and are likely to spark considerable spark and division. (So will the get-tough-on-crime laws, the Tories are planning but they may well find opposition support for many of these initiatives.)

But the federal budget could come as early as the end of this month, which is very early in a mandate to provoke an election. Get past that hurdle and the rest of the Harper agenda is as much talk-talk as vote-vote.

Consider that many of the topics put forward in the speech from the throne fall into two broad categories that won't require much, if any, parliamentary approval.

One is with the provinces. Harper's promised health-care guarantee, his willingness to find a way to rectify the so-called fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, and his overture to Quebec, indeed to all the provinces, to find a new provincial role in international affairs are all giant dialogues that can carry on quite happily without Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe or any Liberal leader being able to shut them down.

The other is Parliament itself. Harper seems to want to reinvent the place literally as a debating chamber. He wants to ask MPs and citizens somehow to re-examine the Canadian electoral system and Senate reform, two projects that can eat up hundreds of hours of cheery debate. He is also intending to ask Parliament to conduct "comprehensive reviews" of such wide-ranging legislation as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Bank Act. (Notably, same-sex marriage was not something the throne speech said is up for imminent debate.)

A cynical observer might wonder if the prime minister is trying to turn the House of Commons into a make-work project. Or if he is trying to take a leaf from Alberta's book and treat the leg as a kind of afterthought, a necessary evil, with the big public debates and discussions going on elsewhere.

It's not like Harper to ask for help, those who know him well say. But if he can get opposition MPs, and even his own backbenchers, talking through the big issues of the day without actually voting on them, then he may have found a way to keep his minority government alive, at least until a time of his own choosing.

Go to the Top

REALITY CHECK MENU

Main page
John Gray
Robert Sheppard

ABOUT ROBERT SHEPPARD

Biography

Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard began his career at the Montreal Star (may it rest in peace), spent 22 years at the Globe and Mail and was recently senior editor at Maclean's magazine. He has co-authored a book on the Canadian Constitution and writes on a variety of subjects.

Reality Check columns from Robert Sheppard
[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

World »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Canada »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Politics »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Health »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Technology & Science »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Money »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Consumer Life »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive] 302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »