Stephen Harper is promising to make it harder for federal politicians to run deficits in his government’s new Speech from the Throne, pledging legislation that limits Ottawa’s ability to run budget shortfalls.
The speech, numbering more than 7,300 words, contains a raft of right-leaning measures aimed at core Conservative supporters, including a pledge to make “the worst of all criminals” serve a full life sentence.
But it also offers a slew of populist consumer-friendly measures designed to attract new voters, including an already-announced plan to force the unbundling of TV channels and a promise of further action to tackle the cross-border difference in prices between Canada and the United States.
The Conservatives are promising, as expected, to balance the budget in 2015.
But they want to force future governments to keep the books in the black.
“Our government will introduce balanced-budget legislation,” the speech, read by Governor General David Johnston Wednesday, said.
The tough-on-spending message resonated in Mr. Harper’s new agenda that marks the return of Parliament and sets the tone for the next two years before an expected 2015 election. Beset by the Senate expenses scandal, amid softening voter support, the Conservatives are trying to reboot their appeal to Canadians.
The Tories are also promising to freeze Ottawa’s overall operating budget – continuing to restrain hiring of federal bureaucrats – and make “further targeted reductions” to internal government spending.
There are loopholes in the balanced-budget legislation if the economic turns sour. “It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times and [set] concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis,” the Throne Speech said.
Balanced-budget legislation has been criticized as gimmicky because a future government could simply pass a bill repealing it.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau lamented the lack of vision in the document, while raising doubts about the Conservative government’s plans to legislate balanced budgets.
“I find it a little rich for them to be proposing balanced-budget legislation. But I look forward to seeing it and hopefully it will help set us on a path that the Conservatives have turned us away from,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters, pointing out that the government “took a $13-billion surplus and turned it into a deficit before the global recession.”
Mr. Trudeau said he agrees with serious sentences for serious crimes, but added the government should not invest in building prisons or move toward a more American-style justice system.
The government mentioned the scandal-plagued Senate only once in the speech, saying they want to scrap it if they cannot find a way to reform it.
“The government continues to believe the status quo in the Senate of Canada is unacceptable,” Mr. Johnston read.
“The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish.”
The Conservative government is currently awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on whether it can inject more democracy into the Senate without the approval of the provinces – and, conversely, that it can abolish the Red Chamber even if it does not have unanimous consent of all premiers. The Tories want to limit senators’ terms to eight or nine years and allow provinces to hold ballots to recommend names for appointment to the Senate.
NDP Leader Thomas Muclair accused Mr. Harper of stealing his party’s policy agenda.
Canadians could go down the lists of promises contained in the Throne Speech and realize that “Mr. Harper seems to be trying to put together some sort of adulterated version of NDP policies from the past,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters.
If the Conservatives were serious about doing something about issues like cyberbullying that the New Democrats have been trumpeting for some time, Mr. Harper could simply enact bills that have already been put forward by the NDP, said Mr. Mulcair.
The NDP Leader expressed incredulity when told that Mr. Harper would not be in Question Period on Thursday because he will be in Europe signing a trade deal. Opposition MPs been anxiously waiting for their opportunity to relaunch an attack on the Prime Minister over a spending scandal in the Senate that was interrupted by the long summer recess of Parliament.
The Conservative speech began with flowery language designed to stir pride in Canada.
“Consider this: we are inclusive. We are 35 million people gathered from every part of the world. We welcome the contribution of all those who inhabit this land – from the first of us to the latest among us,” Mr. Johnston read.
“Consider this: we are honourable. People of peace, we use our military power sparingly; but when we do so we do so with full conviction, gathering our forces as men and women who believe that the freedoms we enjoy cannot be taken from us.”
The Tories also announced they’re delaying the opening of Canada’s first deep-water Arctic port of Nanisivik, designed to be a keystone of Mr. Harper’s northern strategy, until 2018. In the speech they say the port will open when the Arctic patrol ships are completed and the first one is scheduled to roll off the line in 2018.
With files from Gloria Galloway and Daniel Leblanc