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Harper’s Throne Speech to focus on families, sources say

Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2013. Sources say a central theme of his upcoming Throne Speech will be “supporting and protecting families” as the Conservatives try to hone their appeal to middle-class voters.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A central theme of the Harper government's upcoming Throne Speech – which it will use to reboot its parliamentary agenda – will be "supporting and protecting families" as the Conservatives try to hone their appeal to middle-class voters, sources say.

It's one of three overarching elements to be developed in the Oct. 16 address that will herald the reopening of the House of Commons and lay out Prime Minister Stephen Harper's to-do list for the final two years before an expected 2015 federal election.

The other two main themes will be "jobs and opportunity" and "Canadian pride," sources say.

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Polls suggest the Tories, the New Democrats and the Liberals are in a three-way race and if an election were held now the Conservatives would capture just 32 per cent of the vote, a recent Ipsos Reid survey found. That's down from the nearly 40 per cent of the popular vote Mr. Harper's party won in the 2011 federal ballot.

An internal debate inside the government over the content of the Throne Speech has pitted two sides against each other in what is really a perennial argument over how to structure such addresses: should it be a crowded panoply of small, workaday "business of government" measures or a more streamlined statement that puts a priority on thematically driven announcements. Some inside the government long for the simplicity of the 2005-2006 election campaign when the Tories won after promising action on "five key priorities."

The themes of the Throne Speech suggest the Tories, who have proven successful at political marketing in three consecutive elections, are trying to distill their appeal to familiar motifs that have served them well.

The "jobs and opportunity" category is expected to mention everything from "responsible resource development" – a Conservative catchphrase for regulatory and environmental measures on commodity industries – to expanding business opportunities and signing international trade deals. The "supporting and protecting families" theme is expected to cover populist measures in a "consumers first" agenda – such as efforts to help reduce wireless costs – as well as action for victims, combatting crime and supporting communities.

"Canadian pride," will encompass the messages the government wants to deliver on its commitment to celebrate and defend the country's history and heritage, including honouring veterans and commemorating important anniversaries. The Tories are already making big plans to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017 and have yet to conclude their multiyear commemoration of the War of 1812.

This year has been tough for Mr. Harper, who is struggling to renew his appeal to voters after a Senate expenses scandal that cost the Prime Minister's chief of staff and hurt the party's credibility as good stewards of public money.

The return of the Commons in mid-October will leave the Tories facing tough criticism daily from opposition parties over the Senate controversy and they hope to weather the storm by cultivating the impression that they're focused on the real priorities of Canadians and have a plan to take them into the next election.

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All signs suggest a concerted appeal to voters as consumers in the Throne Speech – one that could change the rules for federally regulated industries and is based on the political premise that Canadians like to see their mobile phone carrier, airline or credit card company forced to treat them better. Throughout 2013, the Conservatives have drawn the ire of Canada's Big Three wireless industry players for the manner in which Ottawa has gone about trying to spur competition in the name of lowering wireless rates.

The Tories appear determined to proceed with more consumer-friendly measures; it's widely speculated, for instance, they may introduce an air-passengers bill of rights.

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