This week, Canada’s most singularly predictable hour of political theatre will arrive: the Harper government’s Speech from the Throne. Predictable because it will be presented by the government as a new chapter, attacked by the opposition as insufficient and old news, and forgotten by the public almost as soon as it is delivered.
Leaden in prose, laden with allusions, lofty in aspiration and larded with initiatives, the cold reality is that a Throne Speech is a political anachronism in today’s modern communications world. Yet its importance for what it signals should not be underestimated – not at this juncture for the government. There will be strategy behind it. Boiled down, this means what is said, where it’s said and how it’s said.
Six past Conservative Throne Speeches have provided a useful guide for this one.
Unsurprisingly, in four of those speeches (including the short, exclusive one on the economy in January, 2009, after the coalition crisis and controversial prorogation gambit) the government led with sections on the economy. In the other two, it led with accountability and Canadian sovereignty.
Accountability was first up in the first speech, highlighting the forthcoming Accountability Act, an early signature initiative and a direct response to the sponsorship scandal that had knocked the previous Liberal government into opposition. By the most recent Throne Speech, in 2011, accountability had migrated to the final section, showing its declining prominence relative to the economy and newer, more promising priorities.
Crime and safety has been a persistent Conservative priority from the outset. No surprise, it has merited its own section in all but one Throne Speech.
Environment and climate change have, not surprisingly, fared less well. Tagged on to health in 2007 (shades of climate change as a clean-air issue), it leapt to distinction the next year as the issue ramped up in the public’s consciousness, meriting its own lengthy section titled “Tackling Climate Change And Preserving Canada’s Environment.” It has not been heard from since. Energy, for all its recent public attention, has had only one standalone Throne Speech section under these Conservatives, also in 2008.
While political platforms serve red meat to partisans and voters with sharp, pithy assertions, Throne Speeches tend to fall victim to the pomp and circumstance of the moment and tilt into windiness and platitudes. This government has been no different, for all its hyper-partisanship.
The silliest wording was in a 2007 section titled “The North Star,” a vacuous attempt to brand Canada as some form of Arctic poetry. The most appealing may have been its first, “Turning A New Leaf,” evoking the maple leaf to convey a new political style and direction. “Standing up” has been prevalent throughout most of these speeches, mimicking the Conservatives’ original Standing Up for Canada platform from the 2006 election.
A clearer, more workmanlike style has been apparent in the past two Throne Speeches, which, in turn, illustrated the political status of the government. “Getting The Job Done” came before the last election, with half the speech dedicated to jobs, economy and Canada’s fiscal situation – core Conservative messaging. “Here For All Canadians” was the inclusive title of the first majority government Throne Speech, with sub-themes of stability, security and prosperity (no doubt the desired fortunes for the government itself).
But words are only way stations to the bigger aspect of a Speech from the Throne: its strategy. If the summer cabinet shuffle was Step 1 in the proverbial reset, the Throne Speech is Step 2. The government needs to use it to regain momentum and reclaim the offensive. Few set-piece opportunities remain.
That means doing three things above all: First, pivot from current political difficulties – the Senate and accountability. Second, play to core management strengths – finances and the economy. And third, craft a different vision from the opposition, which is poaching on the government’s middle-class economic bona fides.
In this, we can expect the familiar – jobs, crime, energy, sovereignty, leadership – with perhaps a bit of the unusual, maybe a Senate referendum. Distraction has its own attraction when you’re down in the polls.
But without re-embracing greater political accountability at the outset, the government’s 2011 promises of stability, security and prosperity risk being trumped. Doubling down and denial may be comforting, but will prove destructive.
At this stage in its mandate and its public esteem, the government would do well to borrow from its first Throne Speech and “turn a new leaf” on itself.
David McLaughlin has been chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord and federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.