Throne speech: old stuff, patriotism and pivots

The old stuff seems more important than the new stuff

That was one long Speech from the Throne. Plenty there to sift through. Here are three points that occur to me right off the top:

1. The old stuff seems so much more important than the new stuff.

Every advance indication said “pro-consumer” measures would be the big throne-speech news. Indeed, under the heading “Defending Canadian Consumers,” the government made several pledges—to reduce cell-phone, roaming costs, unbundle cable TV channels so viewers can pick and pay, and somehow force banks to offer more no-cost basic services.

But put those up against several of the leftover items. On the something-to-boast about list, the government announced that a Canada-European Union trade deal is close, and promised to push ahead on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s unexpected breakthrough, with B.C. and Ontario, on creating as single securities regulator.  On the ominously unfinished businesses list, there was a brief reference to the Canada Job Grant, the plan to revamp fed-prov training programs, which of course many provinces are lined up to fight against.

Weighing those heavy-duty policy items of the recent past with the lightweight new content, it’s hard to see this throne speech as evidence of impressive new momentum. If anything, it might make one rethink the business of the  previous few year’s of Conservative rule. Maybe they were being more ambitious than they were often portrayed.

2. The government’s language works better when it can be unabashedly patriotic.

To my ear, the pro-consumer rhetoric is flat. The job-creation talk is slightly better, but still pretty prosaic. I think these Conservatives know what they want to say, and how they want to say it, much better when it comes to Canadian history and the Canadian military.

So the opposition parties should be worried when they hear the revving of the 2017 Anniversary of Confederation engines. That’s a huge political marketing opportunity. Next year’s centennial of the start of World War I isn’t bad either. I was surprised, however, that the Tories risked tarnishing the history-commemoration theme by linking it closely to, of all things, the Senate. “The road to 2017 is a fitting time to strengthen our institutions and democratic processes,” the throne speech said, segueing awkwardly from great moments in Canadian history to the depressing present reality of Parliament’s upper chamber.

On the military, the throne speech hit some effectively brassy notes. For instance, touting their purchase of transport aircraft for the air force, it said: “No longer does Canada have to hitch a ride with out allies. Our serving men and womena cn now carry out their vital missions.” That’s good, straightforward material. The challenge will be sustaining that tone as the Department of National Defence moves from expanding to cutting.

And a side note on that turn to restraint. The throne speech’s emphasis on putting “front-line capability before back-office bureaucracy” sounds directly inspired by Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie’s controversial 2011 “transformation” report. Leslie has since retired from the service, and is now a star recruit to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

3. This government pivots so casually sometimes that it’s positively dazzling.

A striking trait of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and his government, is the ability to abruptly change tacks. Sometimes this happens on such a big subject that everybody notices. For example, there was that day, back in November 2008, when the Prime Minister, having just won re-election on a vow not to run deficits, declared matter-of-factly that the time had come to run deficits.  He was at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru, when he shrugged, “These are, of course, the classic circumstances under which budgetary deficits are essential.”

A far less significant about-face announced in today’s throne speech nevertheless gave me pause. I’ve written on the government’s refusal to including prescription drug abuse as part of its long-term approach to combating drug problems, a strategy that knits together programs in several departments, including Health and Justice, and also the RCMP. Addiction specialists have long been perplexed by the Harper government’s decision to exclude prescription drugs, focusing only on illegal drugs. (Alcohol isn’t included either, for some unfathomable reason.)

But today, suddenly, comes a promise that the government will: “Expand its National Anti-Drug Strategy to address the growing problem of prescription drug abuse.” What took so long? Maybe the pressure around drugs like oxycodone just grew too great. Whatever the reason, it’s a good outcome. Those who patiently, sometimes for years and years, plead for policy changes they believe in should take note.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.