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Politics Tories’ Throne Speech seeks to woo consumers and conservatives alike

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with Governor-General David Johnston after the Throne Speech in Ottawa on Oct. 16, 2013.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

With Wednesday's Speech from the Throne, Stephen Harper hopes to cement the loyalty both of true conservative believers and of harassed consumers just looking for a break.

The question is whether the bevy of new announcements will return to the fold voters who have abandoned a government troubled by allegations of corruption – the Senate expenses scandal – and incompetence, meaning the F-35 acquisition. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will be doing everything in their power to convince those voters to stay away.

This is a Throne Speech devoid of the One Big Idea. Rather, it divides the electorate into niches, from the devoted Tory follower to the suburban consumer to the business owner to those who support the government on fiscal policy but worry about its laissez-faire attitude toward the environment.

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The goal, ultimately, is to forge those niches of core supporters and swing voters into a conservative coalition that will deliver Mr. Harper another majority government in 2015. In that sense, the speech is not so much the much-billed reset for the Tories, but a shopping list for voters.

For the devoted Tory follower, there is balanced-budget legislation, and another promised crackdown on crime.

The all-powerful suburban middle-class consumer was promised new rules that will force banks to expand no-cost basic services, while telcos will be required to reduce roaming costs and unbundle television programming packages.

The business community received word the government is about to close a landmark free-trade deal with Europe – the most far-reaching accord of its kind since the Canada-U.S. agreement of 1988.

For those who see Conservative indifference to environment issues, there were promises to strengthen protections against spills and to expand wilderness areas and green spaces in cities. And the promise to have the Canadian High Arctic Research Station up and running by 2017 buttressed the Harper government's commitment to asserting Canada's claims in the Far North.

Of the lot, two commitments stand out. The first is the promise of balanced-budget legislation – part of a new push to curb spending by freezing the overall operational budget.

Several provinces already have varying kinds of balanced budget laws, none of which stopped their governments from sliding into deficit during the latest recession. A 2012 study by the University of Manitoba looked at balanced budget laws in Western provinces and found they neither limited spending growth in good times nor prevented deficits in hard times.

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Less impressive is the commitment to curb the difference in price between consumer goods sold in Canada and the United States – "to end geographic price discrimination against Canadians," as the Throne Speech put it – which left analysts scratching their heads.

"I really find it a bit mysterious as to what they may be intending to do," said Sheridan Scott, a Bennett Jones competition lawyer and Canada's Commissioner of Competition from 2004 to 2009.

The most ambitious commitment by far, however, was the announcement that, after four years of negotiations, Canada and the European Union are ready to sign the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, opening Canadians goods and services to the world's largest common market.

Predictably, nothing in the Throne Speech impressed the opposition leaders. Promises of polluter-pay legislation and new steps to combat cyberbullying left Mr. Mulcair accusing the Conservatives of raiding the NDP cupboard.

"Mr. Harper seems to be trying to put together some sort of adulterated version of NDP policies from the past," he told reporters. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau maintained that the measures proposed in the Throne Speech "will not make any difference for members of the suffering middle-class."

With reports from Gloria Galloway and Daniel Leblanc

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