Skip to main content
campbell clark

The tone was the substance in this Throne Speech. The policies were straight out of the Liberal platform, and in condensed, vague form. But look again and you'll see that was only part of the agenda set out by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new government.

Growing the economy, middle-class tax cuts, child benefits, infrastructure spending – it's all in there, acknowledged "first and foremost" as the government's priority. That's what got them elected, in theory, and they now face pressure to deliver.

But Mr. Trudeau's spanking new government has learned another lesson, one that has been reinforced since the election by a political honeymoon: Canadians are okay with its agenda, but what they really like is the change in tone. The sunny ways, the pledge to be open, modern, friendly and collaborative – that's been the big political winner.

So the first admonishment from Governor-General David Johnston, reading a speech drafted by Mr. Trudeau's team, was about living that new tone: "I call on all parliamentarians to work together, with a renewed spirit of innovation, openness and collaboration," he said.

The new government promised to practise openness, too, including to consult on electoral reform, but they stressed they would not follow some of the galling symbols of the former government of Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

"Also notable are the things the government will not do: it will not use government ads for partisan purposes; it will not interfere with the work of parliamentary officers; and it will not resort to devices like prorogation and omnibus bills to avoid scrutiny," Mr. Johnston read.

There was a section embracing Canadian diversity, after an election when the right to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies was an issue – and it was cited as more reason for resettling Syrian refugees.

There was a reason, too, why the 15-minute speech was preceded by just as long a walk through the hallways of Parliament, while Mr. Johnston and Mr. Trudeau shook hands with people in lines along them, including children and some newly arrived refugees. The image of the Red Chamber and the red robes of Supreme Court justices was preceded by the song of Ojibwe performer David Charette of Wikwemikong First Nation.

Sometimes a new tone is a big part of the policy. The promise to restart relations with indigenous people on a nation-to-nation basis reiterated in the speech starts with tone. So do many of the promises to work with provinces on climate change, health care and expanding the Canada Pension Plan.

A lot of the tone is atmospherics, of course. It frustrates critics, like opposition MPs, to hear about it again and again. But they might take solace that it is at least as hard to sustain a fresh new tone of collaboration as it is to deliver on most substantive promises.

There were some hints, in terms of emphasis, about policy. Notably, climate change was given a substantial place: it wasn't central to Mr. Trudeau's election campaign, but it has clearly become central to his governing agenda.

There were also notable reiterations of legalizing marijuana, and strengthening cooled relations with the United States. And a summary of priorities: "growing our middle class, on delivering open and transparent government, on ensuring a clean environment and a strong economy…"

Throne speeches are usually vague, and often offer few surprises. Opposition parties typically decry the lack of specifics, but – at least for Liberals and Conservatives – are equally fuzzy when they come into office.

They are often events inside Ottawa because they are seen inside government as clues about the order of priority. They aren't always. Remember Mr. Harper's last one? No? It was a lengthy pre-election rationale, more filled with past accomplishments than future agenda, and included items such as a consumers' agenda that never really went anywhere.

Mr. Harper's first, almost a decade ago, in 2006, was very different: he reiterated the five priorities he had promised, and that he would focus on delivering on them. What Canadians wanted in their new government, Mr. Harper decided in that Throne Speech, was a government that picked a shortlist of concrete policies and delivered.

Now, what Mr. Trudeau has decided is that it's not just the policy priorities that Canadians want from a new government – they care at least as much about the tone.