A throne speech short on words, long on ambition

Posted on in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
December 4, 2015.   Andrew Coyne

There was a time when all throne speeches were this brief. The speech that Governor General David Johnston delivered has been praised for its concision — at a little over 1,700 words, it is the shortest speech from the throne (leaving aside the one that resumed Parliament after the coalition crisis in 2009) since Jean Chrétien’s first, in 1993.

But until the 1960s, the typical speech from the throne was almost always this short, or shorter. Governments in Canada were more modest about their abilities then, and as modest in their rhetoric. As governments grew more bloated, however, so did the speeches. Pierre Trudeau’s first throne speech was 3,000 words; Brian Mulroney’s 4,000; Paul Martin’s, more than 6,000. Stephen Harper’s first was 2,500 words; his last, three times as long. There’s a message in this.

By contrast, Trudeau the Younger’s inaugural sends an admirable message of focus and restraint. The Liberal platform may have been sprawling, at more than 320 promises, but the speech boils these down to five broad themes: the economy, democratic reform, the environment (mostly climate change), “diversity” (mostly to do with aboriginal affairs), and a catch-all category, mostly to do with defence and foreign affairs, but with domestic violence and legalized marijuana somehow shoehorned in.

It is, at every turn, designed to showcase the government’s differences from its predecessor — or indeed, predecessors. If it is impossible to imagine a Harper government putting such emphasis on the environment and diversity, it is equally difficult to imagine Chrétien signing on for electoral reform or whatever it is Trudeau is planning on doing with the Senate.

If much of it is familiar from the platform, it is nevertheless a useful exercise, both to see where the government’s priorities lie and for the overall impression it conveys. In a word, it is, as the speech itself confesses, ambitious.

It may perhaps not have been quite as apparent, amid the hurly-burly of the campaign, but this is a radical government. Expanding the Canada Pension Plan, pricing carbon, reforming the electoral system, adopting all 94 recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, combining four different child benefits into one $23-billion plan: whatever else may be said about it, this is indeed “real change.”

Much of the new government’s agenda will depend on cooperation from the provinces: the carbon pricing plan, CPP expansion, a new health accord, among a long list. Much else will depend upon the state of the federal government’s finances.

Or would, if it showed evidence of being bound by any discernible budget constraint. The $10-billion deficits for two years that were the centrepiece of its fiscal plan during the campaign seem to have become rather larger ones for longer since: the parliamentary budget officer has said the projections on which the plan were based are billions of dollars out of step with reality, while the finance minister has pointedly refused to recommit to the original $10-billion deficit limit.

And the throne speech? It talks only of a fiscal plan that is “responsible, transparent and suited to challenging economic times.” Make of that what you will.

Another possibly noteworthy omission: the tax increase on the “wealthiest one per cent,” a subject on which the Liberals were quite obsessed during the campaign, when they were trying to differentiate themselves from the New Democratic Party. Remember Trudeau upbraiding NDP leader Tom Mulcair during the debates for his unwillingness to raise taxes on the rich?

I suppose we’ll find out whether there is any real significance to this soon enough, when the promised tax cut for the middle class, in whose name the wealthy were supposed to be “asked” to pay “a little more,” is implemented. But the failure even to mention it is of interest, especially after the criticism the tax increase has come under.

Not only is it unlikely to bring in anything like the promised revenues, but is likely to cost the provinces revenues in the bargain, and for the same reason: as high-income taxpayers look for ways to shelter their income, the tax base, on which provinces also collect their tax, shrinks. A rethink that focused instead on closing tax preferences could raise more revenues at less economic cost, and would be most welcome.

Another notable omission: ending the combat mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Liberals have never been able to explain just why this would be necessary or beneficial, especially since unlike the NDP they have no opposition to military action itself, just to Canada’s participation in it. Again, the strong impression was that this was more a stance than a policy, in this case to differentiate them from the Conservatives, and again, it has come in for heavy criticism ever since.

Since the Paris attacks, one after another NATO country has announced either that it would step up its own contribution to the fight, or that it expected others to. It is hard to believe Canada could or would buck this trend, or that our allies would regard more trainers as an adequate substitute. On the other hand, the speech does profess a desire to “strengthen (our) relationship with allies,” singling out the United States, and pledges to “continue to work with (our) allies in the fight against terrorism.”

At any rate, we shall see. You campaign in poetry, goes the old saw, you govern in prose. Throne speeches are when the verses start to get rewritten.

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