The Harper government has two years to save itself from either outright defeat or the loss of its majority.
If an election were held now, the government would go backward. What it has to figure out – and Wednesday’s Speech from the Throne will offer some illustration – is how it intends to go forward.
This government is like an old dog that can’t be taught new tricks. It has shown no ability to change or interest in changing policy course or style. Expecting significant change, therefore, would be to misread the government.
It does politics a certain way, and always has. It approaches policy in a certain way, and always has. It treats information in a certain way, and always has. It governs with its core voters in mind, trying always to activate them, using targeted foreign policy or domestic measures to add particular ethnic constituencies to that core.
We know that the government wants to enter the next election with a luscious bribe, or series of bribes, for middle-class voters. They did it with reducing the goods and services tax when first running for office. And they want to do it again with income splitting, a promise the Conservatives made during the last election, with the proviso that the change would come only after the budget was balanced.
Income splitting will be quite costly for the treasury, but, then, so was cutting the GST. No matter – the Conservatives reckon it will be a political winner, so it will happen.
For it to happen, the government will balance the budget, barring some unforeseen international development. And the budget will be balanced by hoping for somewhat stronger growth (recent forecasts have been dispiritingly low) while cutting government programs and the civil servants who run them.
Beating up on civil servants is deemed to be good politics by this government, which makes a point of how many such jobs they are cutting. (The irony, as the Parliamentary Budget Office explained last week, is that the number of civil servants soared under the Conservatives from 2006 to 2010, and is still higher than when the government took office.)
As the government stresses its fiscal stringency, it will be heralding the big spending it likes to splash across the country, especially for infrastructure, which can mean anything from promising $660-million for the Scarborough subway line in Toronto to repairing wharves in Atlantic Canada.
There will be yet more emphasis laid on transporting bitumen oil to market, although pipelines to the United States and the Pacific Coast are stalled. There will quite likely be talk about expanding Canadian trade opportunities through free-trade agreements, although none of these have yet been sealed and Canada’s trade deficit has started to get much larger.
The government has a mantra: “jobs and the economy.” Expect some variation of this. Alas, unemployment remains about 7 per cent, economic growth has fallen below 2 per cent (not enough to bring down unemployment), the current account deficit is rising and the world’s economic prospects have been clouded by the dysfunctional national government of the United States.
You can expect some additional “tough on crime” measures, because these are popular with core Conservative supporters. There may also be references to the government’s “principled” foreign policy, which has isolated Canada on various issues.
This is a government preoccupied with taxpayers’ pocketbooks. It will pledge, therefore, to keep taxes going down for “hard-working Canadians,” and it will remain largely indifferent to the interests of large businesses.
If the speech has one theme, it will be that this government is fighting for ordinary Canadians against the interests of big business. So watch for consumer-oriented measures to help users of cellphones, airlines, banks and services provided by large companies.
The Big Three telecommunications companies – Rogers, Bell and Telus – are now high up on the government’s enemies list. They will find themselves in a new fight with the government – bet on it.
Like all Throne Speeches, this one will be forgotten quickly. However, the ideas will animate a government that needs a much better run than it’s had to improve its political fortunes.