The oddest part of the Speech from the Throne was not the Governor-General’s little homily, apparently self-written, on how as Canadians we are all “inextricably bound to the same space-time continuum” and “on board the same planetary spaceship.” As Trudeauvian physics goes – and she is very much part of the Trudeau universe – this is fairly standard stuff.
No, the oddest part of the speech, in the wake of an election that revealed profound fears across much of the oil-producing West that the rest of Canada wants to put it out of business, notably by blocking the construction of pipelines to markets east and west, is that the government could not bring itself, in the whole of the vice-regal address, to mention the West, or pipelines, or oil. Not even once.
Sorry, no: the really odd part is that it talked about all of these things, only without naming them. Instead of Alberta or Saskatchewan or the West, it referred to certain “regions”; the grievances feeding the worst outburst of western rage in decades it called “local needs.” For oil, there was “Canada’s natural resources,” and for pipelines, “getting Canadian resources to new markets.”
The deepening sense that the West is not just ignored or misunderstood but under assault, its major export treated as a kind of blight, was puréed into “concerns that the world is increasingly uncertain and that the economy is changing.” It was all rather like one of those coded messages to the French underground the BBC used to insert in its broadcasts during the War: “with the late frost, the hedgehog has no place to burrow.” Only way more condescending.
Anyway, it worked, I guess. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet declared his party would support the government in any vote on the Throne Speech on the grounds that (I am not making this up) the Governor-General had not actually spoken the word “oil.” Who knows, he said: maybe “natural resources” meant Quebec hydroelectricity. On the other hand, if the intent was to make some sort of overture to the West – but no, that was never the intent, was it?
The blunt truth is that this government does not need the West to cement its grip on power. No doubt it would prefer to win some seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan or indeed anywhere outside of Winnipeg and Greater Vancouver. But it doesn’t need to: not while it can count on 140 or 150 seats before it even gets to the Manitoba border. Does the government care about national unity? Of course it does. But it cares even more about winning a majority – a majority that will be won or lost in Quebec, where margins are narrow and allegiances fickle, not the West, where the Liberals haven’t had a prayer since the fifties. It is not going to put that at risk by making any substantive concessions to “regional concerns.”
Neither does it need to appeal to voters to its right. Traditionally, politics is considered as a battle for the centre – the “median voter,” in political science jargon. But the federal Conservatives present no immediate threat in that regard: the party’s core support of 30 to 35 per cent of the vote is impregnable, but neither is it likely to grow. So the Liberals are free to focus on rounding up the left, corralling those footloose progressive voters who, the polls show, bounce back and forth between the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc.
You can see much of that in the speech: a lot of reaching across the aisle, not a lot of reaching across the centre. So a long passage on climate change (“the defining challenge of the time”) is followed by some perfunctory hand-waving about building pipe – er, getting resources to market. A list of promises to shower cash on target demographics – parents, homeowners, students, the elderly, and of course “the middle class,” defined to include virtually everybody – ends with a vague assurance that it will all be part of “a responsible fiscal plan.” (Another word that did not pass the GG’s lips: deficit.)
It’s all there, a progressive wish list: Indigenous reconciliation, health care, gun control, plus “steps to introduce and implement national pharmacare.” Ostensibly this is all in the spirit of finding “common ground,” “forging bonds” and working together with the other parties – the other parties of the left, that is. But of course, it’s really about stealing their votes.
Anyway, when a government calls upon the other parties to “work together,” it means “do not make trouble.” Not that there’s much danger of that. In one sense the Liberals have, with just 33 per cent of the popular vote, the weakest mandate of any government, majority or minority, in Canadian history. But so long as all three major opposition parties have to pull the lever at the same time to bring them down, they’re in a pretty strong position. History, not to say arithmetic, teaches us that when one of the parties is up in the polls, another is down; the latter will nearly always discover a reason why the public interest does not require an election at this time.
Parliament, indeed, is the least of this government’s concerns. Four years ago, when it delivered its first Throne Speech, it enjoyed the company of seven Liberal governments in the provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, plus two NDP governments. Barack Obama was in the White House. It was possible still to be cautiously optimistic about China’s future course.
Today, all that has changed. Much of the agenda outlined in the Throne Speech will require “working together” with provinces, seven of them either Conservative or conservative, that are in no mood to co-operate, while Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China promise to be every bit as disruptive of the new government’s plans as they were of the last’s. Events, dear boy, events.
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