The slow, middle years of a government are not often a time for big initiatives. It feels neither the elation of recent victory nor the hoofbeat of approaching defeat. That appears to be true of Canada’s majority Conservative government. Close to their cherished balanced budget and far from an election, in Wednesday’s Speech from the Throne, the government promised little more than a series of small, low-cost tinkers. Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country can do to lower your cable bill.
The speech delivered on behalf of the government by Governor-General David Johnston was long and detailed, in part because so much time was spent enumerating things already done, and promises already made. That history is relevant: Yes, the federal deficit is low and falling; yes, Canada’s post-recession employment growth record tops the G7; yes, the government has taken steps to reform a clogged immigration system. But none of this is new. Which is why the section entitled “Defending Canadian Consumers” has been getting so much attention.
The government promised to “take steps to reduce roaming costs” for cellphone users. It says it will take action so that cable and satellite customers can “choose the combination of television channels they want” by “unbundling” channel packages. And it promised to move on “hidden fees,” including making it so that “customers won’t pay extra to receive paper bills.” If this part of the agenda reads like it was pilfered from the NDP, that’s because to some extent it was.
It’s not exactly an ambitious project of nation-building, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The government does not have much in the way of big, short-term objectives, but it signalled again on Wednesday that it has at least one big, long-term goal. The most significant sentence in the speech may be this: “Once the budget is balanced, our Government is committed to greater tax relief for Canadian families.”
The government’s target date for a balanced budget is 2015. Absent a global economic shock, that goal can easily be met. The next election is also scheduled for 2015. The government is in effect promising that there will be few new agenda items in this session of Parliament, or in next spring’s budget. But jump forward a year: in the run-up to the next election, the government can expect to find itself in a position where it will be able to make significant announcements in terms of tax cuts and spending. Until then? Another middle year of tinkering around the margins is what Wednesday’s Speech from the Throne promised.