It was as much a campaign kickoff as a Throne Speech. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government opened a new Parliamentary session by laying out a populist vision for the final two years of its majority mandate. The Speech from the Throne hit on a series of red-meat Conservative issues, including crime and slaying the deficit, while laying out a series of tangible, populist moves ultimately meant to woo voters – things like lower cellphone bills. The speech is meant to breathe new life into the governing party at a time when its poll numbers are sagging. These are some of the themes – and targets – of the Throne Speech.
CRACKING DOWN ON CELLPHONE BILLS, BANKING FEES
The government is wading into the private sector in an attempt to ease life for consumers. The Throne Speech pledged to reduce cellphone roaming fees, end cable TV bundling so viewers can pick channels they want, expand high-speed Internet access, slash bank bees, ban extra fees for getting a paper copy of a bill, reduce the gap between Canadian and U.S. prices and make it legal to take booze and beer over provincial borders.
Those roaming-charge cuts, bank-fee reductions and cable-TV overhauls are all bread-and-butter populist issues that don’t cost much, if anything, as the government is trying to slash the deficit. They’re trinkets designed to stick in a voter’s mind come election day – tangible like the GST cut, but at far less cost. They’re aimed at shoppers and families, rather than a particular region, age group or ethnic group.
Whether these changes will matter in the 2015 election depends on if they’re actually made. Many hinge on how industry will respond. What banks will cut fees, and what fees will they cut? Which retailers will level out Canadian prices with American ones, and what happens if the dollar drops? Cable TV may be no cheaper for viewers who want more than a handful of channels. Cellphone fees are being partially addressed, but many extreme roaming charges happen outside the country, and the changes are only within Canada.
The Conservatives hope concrete steps for consumers will bolster the party’s position on economic issues – but that’s only if the changes get made. If they instead trigger a battle with industry, it could ultimately leave the Conservatives with little to show to consumers come campaign season.
BALANCING THE BOOKS
Balanced-budget legislation is coming to Ottawa, but the Throne Speech offered little detail as to what a federal bill would look like.
“It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis,” the speech states. The bill would further highlight Ottawa’s plan to erase the deficit by 2015, a pledge that was repeated in the speech.
The federal public service will be targeted for more savings through an operating budget freeze and the potential sale of federal assets. The Throne Speech also reiterates plans to curb public-sector benefits.
Balanced-budget bills are particularly popular in Western Canada. They tend to be supported by provincial conservatives who are worried about the size of government debt. The recent recession – coupled with the lost revenue from a two-point reduction in the goods and services tax – has led to large deficits in Ottawa. The balanced budget bill will be an effort to reassure supporters that a future of smaller government and balanced books is on the horizon.
Targeting the public service is part of the overall objective of eliminating the deficit, an accomplishment the Conservatives hope will be popular with a broad range of voters.
Several provinces already have varying degrees of balanced-budget laws, but they did not stop governments from sliding into deficit during the latest recession.
As for a new squeeze on the public service, the government has already saved more than $5-billion a year through several waves of restraint on job cuts. The Throne Speech language suggests the next moves won’t be as aggressive. Still, unions note that morale is a growing concern in light of the continuing focus on restraint.
FIRST NATIONS AND EDUCATION