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Speech serves up some meaty conservative issues, and leaves room for dessert

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper waits for the start of the Speech from the Throne in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 16, 2013.

Blair Gable/REUTERS

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With Wednesday's Speech from the Throne, the Conservative government has offered Canadians a calorie-rich policy menu, with plenty of red meat for conservative voters and sugary confections for those who might be tempted to dine elsewhere.

Stephen Harper is hoping that you'll find the meal on offer both tasty and satisfying. Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau hope that Mr. Harper's feast will give you indigestion.

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The red meat comes in the form of several bits of one-upmanship. We have always known that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is determined to balance the budget by 2015 regardless of economic conditions. But now we learn that the Conservatives will introduce balanced-budget legislation that effectively prohibits federal deficits in normal economic times. (Subsequent governments can, of course, repeal the law if they want to go into the red.)

The Tories have long boasted of their commitment to reducing regulations. But with their proposed one-for-one legislation, which requires one regulation to be eliminated for every new one introduced, they hope to permanently limit the amount of red tape in which government can enmesh consumers and businesses.

The Conservatives have already tightened sentencing guidelines as part of their law-and-order agenda, but now they are proposing life without parole for the very worst offenders. Oh, and there will be a new law honouring police animals and their handlers.

The confections come in the already-leaked pledge to force telecoms to reduce roaming charges and unbundle programming packages. Banks will be forced to expand no-cost services. And there will be unspecified action–call it the Target Law, in honour of complaints surrounding the new retailer's arrival – promising to end "geographic price discrimination against Canadians."

Finally, for those who are attracted to the Conservative economic agenda – and who will be pleased by the announcement that the Canada-European Union trade agreement is almost ready to sign – but who lament the Tories' indifference to the environment, the Throne Speech promises a raft of new measures to protect against spills and to create new protected areas in the wilderness and green space in urban and suburban communities.

And there are even a few plans to appeal to everyone all at once, such as the commitment to ensure that the Canadian High Arctic Research Station is up and running by 2017, in time for the sesquicentennial, and the vague commitment to Senate reform and protecting the integrity of the voting system.

Will it be enough to restore the popularity of a government that has lagged in the polls for many months? Much will depend on the actual legislation – when it arrives, what it says and how quickly it gets passed.

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Much more will depend on how the NDP and Liberals respond. Mr. Harper has laid out a clear, if controversial agenda, that emphasizes fiscal discipline and new trade agreements over social investments, getting tougher on serious crime even as Mr. Trudeau proposes legalizing marijuana, limiting the bureaucracy rather than investing in new government programs and services.

The opposition will oppose, as they should. But they will also need to propose alternatives. And once those proposals are in place, Canadians will be able to choose three sets of policy choices from three very different menus.

And that, quite simply, is what the next two years will be about.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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