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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

If only the Tories had taken a cue from our Olympians Add to ...

Because the Harper government had to "recalibrate" in suspending Parliament two months ago, expectations were high that yesterday's Speech from the Throne would reveal a new direction. But not much new was to be found. It was a traditional, if longer, Throne Speech, a rollout of high-sounding platitudes and a promise essentially to stay the course.

Indeed, a case can be made that no dramatic turn in the government's agenda is necessary. The story of this government is not so much one of policy direction as it is of character.

On that note, here's the message the Throne Speech should have contained from the Prime Minister. "My fellow citizens, I've just returned from the Vancouver Olympics, where I witnessed the outstanding performances and marvellous sportsmanship shown by our Canadian athletes. And you know something: I learned a lesson there, and I've decided to change my ways. I'm going to bring that spirit of sportsmanship and class to the way I do politics."

Now that would be something to cheer about. It was a bit ironic, after all, to see Stephen Harper trying to bask in the Olympic glory. This was the guy who, with his latest suspension of Parliament, ran from the playing field when the going got tough.

It's not something great sportsmen or political leaders do. As documented by dozens of cases, the Harper government, with some exceptions (such as its impressive response to Haiti's calamity), has used every kind of low-level manoeuvre to score points - the sporting equivalents, you might say, of head-butting, spearing, trash talk and rule-bending. If politics were a sport, this group would probably have been banished from the Olympic movement long ago.

While there was no change of character signalled in the Throne Speech, it did make a good case that Canada, especially on a comparison basis with the other Group of 20 countries, is on a reasonably sound trajectory. There were some new offerings, such as promises of protection for workers from big company bankruptcies. And for the ever-aging population, there's the news that the government plans to establish a Seniors Day. We can celebrate being old!

Noteworthy was the absence of any strategy for attacking the deficit. It won't be done on the backs of taxpayers, the speech vowed. But that raised a question: How else? A government spending review will eliminate some costs, but nowhere near the amount needed. Economic growth will have to do it, but a huge global economic recovery will be necessary for that to happen.

The Throne Speech promised fewer restrictions on foreign investment, particularly in the satellite and telecommunications area, and on free trade. But it was pretty small pickings when the big news of the day, as indicated by an early leak from the Prime Minister's Office, was a freeze on politicians' salaries. With the amount of time they've had off in the past couple of years, Canadians probably wanted to see a cut, not a freeze.

One of the hopes from yesterday's speech and today's budget is to move the focus off the Afghan detainees controversy that, as former Harper adviser Tom Flanagan has pointed out, was the real reason for the prorogation.

There's little chance of that. The Liberals plan to introduce a motion to have the government held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release documents on the detainees' file, as ordered by a vote in the House of Commons.

Mr. Harper could change his mind and, proceeding in a democratic spirit, turn over the documents. But that's unlikely to happen because the contents could reveal much duplicity on the government's part. The government is likely to stick to its guns, using the great cover of national security as its rationale.

While the Liberals should keep the controversy going, they're blowing a better opportunity - when the timing is so right - by failing to bring in a major reform plan to reduce the PMO's powers.

Overconcentration of power in prime ministerial hands has been an escalating problem for four decades running, and it's now reached critical mass. A one-man democracy is not something Canadians bargained for.

You'd think the Liberals would clue in and do something about it. A big reform would have broad appeal across party lines. Against the Conservatives, it's the issue where they can get the most traction.

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