Wake the kids, phone the neighbours, it’s time for another Harper Government Reset Moment.
Every few months, the press gallery decides the government is getting tired and that it’s time to hit the reset button. The last Reset Moment came in July, when the Prime Minister shuffled his cabinet. But, perhaps surprisingly, the jolt of adrenalin that resulted from watching Rob Nicholson and Peter MacKay switch portfolios turned out to be fleeting.
Before that, Stephen Harper was hoping to use the Conservative convention in Calgary to relaunch after a lousy spring. But in June, the heavens opened and much of Alberta was flooded out, so the Conservative convention was postponed until Halloween.
So the next Reset Moment will come on Oct. 16, when Governor General David Johnston will read the Speech from the Throne outlining the Harper government’s policy plans. From John Ivison, a National Post columnist whose virtues include a good pipeline into the government, comes news that this Throne Speech will feature a “consumers first” agenda that will “pit the Conservatives against some of Canada’s largest airlines, telecom companies and financial institutions.” There’s apparently talk of a “consumer bill of rights” that would mandate or, at least, plead for, less confusing airline-ticket pricing and cheaper phone bills.
The notion has a lot to recommend it. It’s populist stuff that would seek to keep this government closely identified with the concerns of middle-class families. And it exploits a potential emerging weakness in the NDP. Former leader Jack Layton was big on the concerns of ordinary Canadians. He was always talking about policies “for the kitchen table, not the boardroom table.” The new guy, Tom Mulcair, might be less persuasive in that role, as might the Liberal, Justin Trudeau. Parking himself at the kitchen table offers at least a chance for Harper to burnish his regular-guy credentials.
Finally, getting righteous on behalf of consumers would have the virtue of novelty. If this government stands up for consumers, it has until now been bashful about saying so. The most recent Throne Speech, only 25 months ago, contained no mention of the word “consumer.” Previous Throne Speeches—there have been six in total from various Harper governments up to now—contained hardly any more language on consumers’ rights. But those old speeches make fun reading today anyway, for their mix of forced rhetoric, policy dead ends and, here and there, a few real portents of what Harper had in store.
On Oct. 16, 2007, Michaëlle Jean delivered the Harper government’s second Throne Speech. It contained one reference to consumers. “Our government shares the concern of parents about the safety of consumer products and food.” It also promised “binding national regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions across all major industrial sectors—with requirements for emissions reductions starting this year.” Six years later, there are still no regulations for the oil sands.
On Nov. 19, 2008, after Harper’s first re-election, everyone was back in the Senate for another big speech. “Our government will follow through with legislation providing better oversight of food, drug and consumer products,” Jean said. The government also promised to “respect the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories and . . . enshrine its principles of federalism in a charter of open federalism.” That didn’t happen.
The 2008 Speech’s odes to Parliament’s greatness read a little funny in retrospect. “Parliament is Canada’s most important national institution . . . Parliament should be an expression of our highest ideals and deepest values, our greatest hopes and grandest dreams for the future of our children.” Two weeks later, the three opposition parties tried to give Harper’s job to Stéphane Dion. Harper promptly petitioned the GG to prorogue the session, thereby saving his bacon. Rarely since has Parliament expressed anyone’s values or hopes. Even Harper prefers to express his values and hopes as far from the Commons as he can get.
The next Throne Speech, on Jan. 26, 2009, was so short, it would have fit into 35 tweets of 140 characters each. “Our government is acting to ensure access to credit for businesses and consumers,” it said, and not much else.
The Throne Speech of March 3, 2010 (“Our government will reintroduce legislation to protect Canadian families from unsafe food, drug and consumer products”), contained one colossal screw-up: the proposal, shelved before nightfall amid nationwide derision, to “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.” Amid the hoots and guffaws, audiences might have missed serious news. To eliminate the jumbo, recession-fuelled deficit, Harper (via Jean, still; it would be her last Throne Speech) promised “to restrain federal program spending overall, while protecting growth in transfers that directly benefit Canadians, such as pensions, health care and education.” Those cuts in Ottawa, made all the sharper because transfers to individuals and provinces were held steady, have guided Harper’s actions consistently since.
But the promises you keep aren’t the ones that cause trouble. It’s the ones you miss or the things you do without warning. The 2011 Throne Speech featured promises to complete free-trade negotiations with Europe in 2012, and India in 2013. Neither goal will be met. Truth be told, the big guy hates Throne Speeches, read haltingly by someone else in a stuffy room with lousy visuals. Worst of all, they restrict what he treasures, his room to improvise in the face of changing events. Stephen Harper’s ideal Throne Speech would be three words long and read by Harper himself: “I’ve got this.”
On the web: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells