The Commons: Don’t get your hopes up and you won’t be disappointed

Aaron Wherry on the Speech from the Throne

A mere 58 minutes. That’s it. That’s all.

We were promised an hour, perhaps as much as an hour and a half. And yet here was Michaëlle Jean, solemnly invoking “Divine Providence” at precisely 3:47pm this afternoon, just about 58 minutes after she welcomed “honourable senators, members of the House of Commons, ladies and gentlemen.”

Some 6,000 words passed in between, each delivered in that breathy, deliberate way of the Governor General’s. But this was not quite the excruciating test of endurance for speaker and listener alike, not nearly the epic we were told to expect. Once more we are faced with a government full of ambition and promise, unable to ultimately deliver. Once again we see the danger of unrestrained hope.

It is entirely possible, one supposes, that the government merely underestimated the Governor General’s pace. For sure, her tendency to dwell on each word, to draw out her “s” and soft “c” sounds, bode poorly for those with other plans this afternoon. Ominously, she arrived a bit late too, the horns sounding to signal her arrival at 2:36pm. She strode in and took her place in the big red chair, the Prime Minister seated in a smaller chair to her right like an unruly student made to keep within the teacher’s reach.

The formalities commenced and the members of the House were invited to come listen. A few dozen soon appeared at the far end of the chamber, the diminutive Gary Lunn making sure to get a spot up front. John Baird appeared and was soon enough heckling one of the senators on the government side.

Order was called and the Governor General commenced with the speech, carefully reading into the record each and every word laid before her.

“As we begin to see modest improvements in growth and employment, the task before us today is to finish the work begun last year,” she said at the end of the seventh paragraph.

This seemed a fine spot to finish, but she continued. For another 21 pages.

The first big news came two-thirds of the way down page five with the first of 54 bullet points. “Our government will lead by example,” the government said through Ms. Jean, “introducing legislation to freeze the salaries of the Prime Minister, Ministers, Members of Parliament and Senators.”

You will surely rest a little bit better this evening knowing the Prime Minister will make due for the foreseeable future on a mere $315,462, not including a $2,122 car allowance. Whatever fate should befall this country as we emerge from this period of economic calamity, his sacrifice must not be forgot.

This speech was rife with such grandiose gestures, the Prime Minister having apparently written down every single thought that occurred to him over the last two months (excepting only the sweary bits, the slanderous parts questioning the leader of the opposition’s fortitude and Mr. Harper’s thoughts on Brian Burke’s management of the Toronto Maple Leafs). The government, we learned, “will support legislation establishing Seniors Day.” The government, we were told, will “establish a prime ministerial award for volunteerism.” Should your grandfather be a particularly ambitious volunteer, he should be doubly happy this day.

“Canadians,” Ms. Jean explained, “want their government to do what is right, not what is popular.” And on such principled and brave leadership does the government now vow to “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.”

Not simply visionary, the government here was also educational. “We are the world’s seventh largest crude oil producer with the second largest proven reserves,” we discovered on page 9. “We are the third largest natural gas producer, the third largest hydroelectric generator, the largest producer of uranium, and by far the largest supplier of energy resources to the world’s largest marketplace.”

And in addition to all of the ways the government proposes to improve our state, the government explained all of the ways in which it is failing us—condemnation made of “unfair tax loopholes” and “unnecessary regulation” and “the daunting maze of regulations” and “unnecessary, job-killing regulation” and “red tape” and “unfair rules,” not to mention “Canada’s outdated system of fisheries management.”

Various senators and Supreme Court justices battled heavy eyelids. Some MPs, their commitment to the Westminster system waning, wandered away.

But this was not all the cold language of federal authority and management.

There was, for instance, alliteration. “Our peaceful, prosperous and pluralistic society is one of the safest places in the world to live,” Ms. Jean observed.

There was an attempt at metaphor. “Spending designed for a rainy day should not become an all-weather practice,” Ms. Jean instructed.

There were archaic, but funny-sounding, words like “hence” and “ambit.” There was a promise to commemorate the War of 1812. There was a commitment to “spacefaring.”

And with the last sentence of the fourth-last paragraph, the government’s speechwriters reached for poetry. “Hope is borne,” the Governor General read, “on the wings of prosperity.”

Today the government has delivered us a wealth of words. If it genuinely intends to make them worth more than the quality stock of paper they were printed on today, it has only work to do. And so surely it will have no excuse to be running away from this place anytime soon.