Seizing Canada’s Moment: The Speech from the Throne

The big news yesterday is of course that the Tea Party finally caved and allowed the United States government to reopen amidst its continued partisan deadlock (between the corporatist and the crazy corporatist right-wing). They’ve kicked the can for the next faceoff to January, when we’ll potentially get to do the whole thing over again.

In other news, my biased Canadian-politics Twitter was ablaze over the pomp and circumstance that was Stephen Harper’s (or I guess it was David Johnston’s) latest Speech from the Throne. Look, it even got it’s own domain: http://www.speech.gc.ca/

That website contains the full text, which I’ll analyze below, and numerous ads dedicated to  the never-ending Canada’s Economic Action Plan and “Seizing Canada’s Moment.” As far as I can tell, a speech from the throne has never gotten it’s own marketing material (beyond a press release or early leak), let alone branding. Such is Canada’s current political climate that routine procedures are marketable moments.

So what does Harper promise for the second half of his majority government? How will we “not recognize Canada when [he’s] gets through with it?”

Following the preliminary rah-rah Canada remarks, we get to his first goal: “Creating Jobs and Opportunities for Canadians,” the first point of which is “Balanced Budgets and Reducing the Cost of Government.”

The big promises here are to balance the budget by 2015 and reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio. These would both be easy had Harper’s first actions as Prime Minister not have been to devastate the country’s revenue base by cutting taxes and the GST across the board but that’s in the past, these Conservatives are ironically forward looking.

He also promises to introduce a neo-con favourite: the balanced budget law. Only this law will only require balanced budgets “during normal economic times,” which basically means that any government that deems a deficit necessary will have an out. In simpler terms, it’s an empty promise and a waste of legislation. Expect it to come with some pomp and threats but then do absolutely nothing.

Additionally, there are promises to continue to try to reduce the size of the government (probably to the point where they can drown it in a tub). These include a freeze on the operating budget, reforms and reviews of spending, another fire-sale of federal assets, cuts to disability and sick-pay (because rationally self-interested individuals wouldn’t choose to be sick or disabled), and merging all of the email systems. I must admit that I like the idea of merging email systems but many technical challenges and some risk to doing so, on top of the security concerns.

Next come promises of Jobs for Canadians. I assume the heading Jobs for Albertans was rejected by the speech-writing committee.

Overall, I actually like a lot of the promises in this section. I’m not a labour economist, so I don’t know if there might be better approaches but this does have a number of appealing ideas. First, there’s a Canada Job Grant to help employers fill vacancies. Second, there is a focus on raising employment for aboriginals, youths, and people with disabilities – three groups with higher than average unemployment. There also may be some changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which I would ideally see scrapped in favour of providing jobs to Canadians or true immigrants. Time will tell if the TFW changes end up improving labour conditions or continue suppressing wages.

Trade is up next, with more promises for free trade agreements. Perhaps the best thing in this section is a promise to amend the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act to let people travel with alcohol across provinces.

Alberta Resource Development and Farms, Fisheries, Forestry continue the right-wing agenda of drilling and piping oil to foreign markets to be refined. There is a nod to environmental concerns here but only in terms of pollution and oil spill dangers. I wouldn’t expect more from a government who’s Environment Minister considers climate change to be “debatable.” The government will also continue to support supply management – an arguably socialist policy from the 1930s that keeps milk and egg prices high but ensures farmers receive a living wage.

Priorities in Infrastructure and Shipbuilding and Manufacturing include a number of existing promises, such as subways in Toronto (good news for mayor Rob Ford) and Vancouver’s Evergreen Line. I don’t think anything is new in either of these sections.

The Science and Technology section notes that the Harper government has invested over $9 billion in “science, technology, and innovative companies,” which sounds impressive until you realize that is since 2006 and that the government’s approach has received wide criticism from scientists and the New York Times. Indeed, the speech promises no action to restore freedom of speech and research to Canadian science. Instead there will be a “transformation of the National Research Council,” an agency that is publishing 70% fewer articles than it did when Harper came to power.

Everything in this section should come as a disappointment to the majority of those who support primary research in Canada. The focus is business and profit, not research and pure science. If your idea isn’t profitable, Canada’s government isn’t interested.

Finally, under Small Business and Tourism, we are told that the “One-for-One Rule” will become law – meaning that every new regulation introduced must replace an existing one. This seems like a reasonable idea until you reach the inevitable point when every regulation still has a purpose and the government is forced to remove useful regulations. Additionally, this rule, designed to make regulations simpler for small businesses, means that for every regulatory change introduced, small businesses now have to figure out two new ways of doing things. Having dealt with some bureaucracy in non-profit, I would rather see consistency than an ever-changing regulatory landscape that you have to relearn every year. This absurd policy doubles the work for everyone.

Oh but there’s more. The next big section is Supporting and Protecting Canadian Families.

And what are the big threats to Canadian families? Taxes, corporations, and criminals.

First up, Harper will continue Keeping Taxes Low. There are no new promises here, just a reminder of how much revenue the government pissed away.

Second comes the much-ballyhooed section on Defending Canadian Consumers. Here we get the promises to reduce mobile roaming costs, unbundle TV packages (which will likely lead to higher cable bills), and more rural broadband. Overall, these are useful promises, many of which are lifted from the NDP’s 2008 and 2011 platforms.

Under Supporting Victims and Punishing Criminals we continue the “tough on crime” even when it’s falling to historic lows approach. This includes a Victims Bill of Rights, ending early release of violent offenders, defending the constitutionality of prostitution laws, and making “a life sentence mean a sentence for life”. To their credit, there are promises to address cyber-bullying and violence against Aboriginal women.

Finally, we get a splattering of promises under the title of Safeguarding Families and Communities. It’s not clear what they need safeguarding from but the more vague the danger, the better for Conservatives. This is why we get weird statements like: “That’s why our Government took money from bureaucrats and lobbyists and gave it to the real experts on child care—mom and dad,” which seem to deliberately ignore non-traditional families such as single parent homes or homosexual parents.

As for promises, expect better food and drug labels, more targeted tax breaks, and some vague promises relating to seniors and healthy living. Gattaca must have also been on Harper’s summer movie list, as genetic testing will be banned as grounds for discrimination by employers and insurance companies.

Squeezing social policy into the middle of a section here, Harper reminds us that he will continue to fight against evidence and try to prevent more safe injections sites from being opened through the Respect for Communities Act and promises to crack down on “the growing problem of prescription drug abuse” and “feeding addiction under the guise of treatment.”

Existing efforts to promote housing and conservation will continue and the government will continue reducing greenhouse gases while remaining competitive (no word on how much or what means will be used here). Finally, there are a few promises to make rail transport safer, relating to the recent Lac-Mégantic disaster.

The third, and final, major section is Putting Canada First. In short this is good news if you like the Army and the North and hate immigrants.

Supporting Our Armed Forces promises to continue using Canada’s military in the 21st Century to protect the nation from unnamed threats. Remember, this is the government that asked whether the Vancouver Olympics should be “concerned about any aerial incursions by the Russians.” Maybe the USA will collapse under the partisanship and the Tea Party will storm North to escape Obamacare – we already know Ted Cruz was born in Canada…

Anyway, there’s nothing about Peacekeeping here, Canada doesn’t do that anymore, just vague promises about reducing military bureaucracy and maintaining readiness for those unspecified threats.

The code-word for Arctic oil, Canada’s Northern Sovereignty, is next with promises to continuing the militarization of Santa’s workshop. At least this will mean some investment in Arctic communities, including health, education, housing, a new highway, and a research station. Naturally, this all makes it easier to continue “responsible resource development” of the North and defending the traditional seal hunt.

There is also an oddly specific promise to find out what happened to Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition. I had to look this up, Franklin was an explorer who died in 1847 after his ship, Terror, became trapped in ice during an expedition to explore the Northwest Passage. I take it that if Harper (personally) fails to find Franklin’s ship, his leadership will be remembered as a failure.

The next string of promises comes from Promoting Canadian Values. In his own words, these are that Canadians are “honourable in our dealings, faithful to our commitments, loyal to our friends. Confident partners, courageous warriors and compassionate neighbours.”

The only two foreign countries to be mentioned in the speech are America (with respect to trade) and Israel, who Canada’s government will continue to defend. The government will also defend freedom – freedom of religion foremost. Foreign aid will be filtered through the private sector and will be tied to results. Malala Yousafzai will receive an honorary citizenship and efforts will be made to fight early and forced marriages in Canada.

Referring to the the “broken immigration system,” Harper lays out what he’s done to make life worse for those trying to find refuge in Canada and promises to keep at it. Perhaps most worrying is a promise to introduce major reforms to the Citizenship Act. Remember that this is a government that has threatened to strip citizenship from people, something not done in large practice since racist laws before the Second World War.

Finally, closing out the speech we get a list of promises for the 2017: Anniversary of Confederation. Making the ballsy assumption that the Conservatives will still be in power after the 2015 Election, or at least wanting to force their successor to host a militaristic party, celebrations will include a bunch of war memorials, including the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. The Memorial to the Victims of Capitalism will undoubtedly be unveiled next year.

Also in honour of the anniversary comes promises to continue treaty dialogues, a change to the Senate (dependent on the Supreme Court’s ruling) and amendments to the election laws that the Conservatives can’t seem to follow.

In Conclusion, no real surprises in this speech with some policies I could actually support. In general though, it’s far too punitive, narrow, and militaristic for my Canada. And instead of “God Bless Canada,” we got the more Canadian:

May you be equal to that trust in all things and may Divine Providence guide you in your deliberations.