Tale of two throne speeches .. in search of Canadian liberalism and conservatism too

Apr 8th, 2006 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

It is interesting to compare the throne speech that Governor General Adrienne Clarkson read on behalf of Paul Martin’s new Liberal minority government, at the opening of the 38th Parliament of Canada on October 5, 2004, with the throne speech that Governor General Michaelle Jean has just read on behalf of Stephen Harper’s new Conservative minority government, at the opening of the 39th Parliament, on April 4, 2006.

As the Old/New Canadian Tories at The National Post have gleefully noted, one point is that right at the start Mme Jean alluded to her formal status as the “representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.” Mme Clarkson did nothing of the sort a year-and-a-half ago – at the start nor anywhere else in the Liberal speech she read.

At the same time, the 2006 speech also suggests a certain Conservative schizophrenia about the formal niceties of current Canadian constitutionalism. Once Mme Jean had made a perfunctory bow to the Queen in her first paragraph, she appealed to “the Canadian people” four times.

(As in “On January 23, the Canadian people elected a new government,” p. 2; “This Government has been given a mandate to lead the change demanded by the Canadian people,” p. 4; “This new government trusts in the Canadian people,” p. 4; and “the Government looks forward to making this Parliament work for the benefit of the Canadian people,” p. 11. Some might be prompted to wonder: Just who is ultimately theoretically in charge nowadays anyway, the Canadian people or Queen Elizabeth II?)

1. Realities of governing Canada …

Eventually Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have to decide which master (or mistress) he is going to follow – the old Queen Elizabeth II (and the fabled Canadian elites who still live off her reflected glory), or the new Canadian people who are demanding change?

Meanwhile he is confronting the traditional problem of all Canadian prime ministers from the beginning in 1867: just how many masters can you actually manage to serve at once, without becoming an alcoholic like the first Conservative prime minister, John A. Macdonald?

To start with here, the Conservatives’ new throne speech is in some ways not all that different from the Liberals’ earlier version. The Liberals in 2004 were concerned about “treating every tax dollar with respect,” p. 3. The Conservatives in 2006 believe that Canadians still “want a government that treats their tax dollars with respect,” p. 3.

(In practice, of course, the inflated ongoing saga of the Quebec sponsorship scandal has somewhat weakened the Liberals’ rhetorical case here. And that is one reason the Conservatives are in office in 2006 – with a minority government sustained by some 10 fewer seats in the Canadian House of Commons than the Liberals started with in 2004.)

Similarly, in 2004 the Liberals said “the Government’s regional objectives will be complemented by the most fundamental reform of the Equalization program in its 47-year history,” to ensure “more stable and predictable … payments by the federal government to the less-wealthy provinces in support of key public services,” p. 5.

What with all the sophomoric high-jinks in the 38th Parliament, not much on all this happened over the next year and a half. So in 2006 the Conservatives are still “committed to building a better federation.” And they are saying they will “respond to concerns about the fiscal imbalance … to ensure fiscal arrangements in which all governments have access to the resources they need to meet their responsibilities,” p. 8.

2. Or trying to …

Moving right along, the Liberals said they were committed to “a meaningful reduction in wait times for health services ” in 2004 (p. 6). The Conservatives have just talked about making sure “that all Canadians receive essential medical treatment within clinically acceptable waiting times” in 2006 (p. 7).

In 2004 the Liberals were telling us that: “For a decade, all governments have understood that the most important investment that can be made is in our children,” p. 8. In 2006 the Conservatives are still telling us that: “The most important investment we can make as a country is to help families raise their children,” p. 6.

Both the 2004 and 2006 Canadian federal throne speeches have something of an early 21st century military air as well. Instead of bowing to the Queen at the start of her talk on behalf of the Liberals, Mme Clarkson bowed to “the 60th anniversary of D-Day and the landing of allied forces in Europe,” when “Canadian soldiers, sailors and aircrews fought with dogged bravery and were ultimately victorious on Juno Beach … On these occasions, we are reminded of the huge debt we owe to those in uniform who have served this country-then and today.”

Almost at the end of her talk on behalf of the Conservatives, Mme Jean said: “Just as it honours the past efforts of our veterans, the Government stands firmly behind the vital role being played by our troops in Afghanistan today. The dedicated Canadians in Afghanistan deserve all of our support as they risk their lives to defend our national interests, combat global terrorism and help the Afghan people make a new start as a free, democratic and peaceful country.”

Both the 2004 and 2006 speeches also stress the realities of living right next door to the great elephant of the early 21st century global village. The Liberals then talked about finding new ways “to effectively assert our interests and project our values in a changing world,” and the need “to manage wisely our relationship with the United States, to know our friend better, and to strengthen our economic and security relations,” pp. 1213.

The Conservatives now are saying that: “The Government will work cooperatively with our friends and allies and constructively with the international community to advance common values and interests … starting with Canada’s relationship with the United States, our best friend and largest trading partner,” p. 9.

3. While cultivating somewhat different classes …

None of this of course is to say that there are not a few striking enough differences between the old 2004 and new 2006 throne speeches – beyond the Old Tory bow to the Queen at the beginning. The two speeches may cover some rather similar themes. But they propose to deal with the themes in somewhat different ways.

The leading example here is child care policy. In 2004 the Liberals said: “The time has come for a truly national system of early learning and child care … The Government will put the foundations in place with its provincial and territorial partners, ” p. 8. In practice, this meant federal subsidies to provincial public-sector daycare programs – more or less like the one Canada’s unique province of Quebec already had (and still has) up and running.

In the 2006 election campaign the Conservatives talked about replacing this concept with direct federal child care grants to parents – following their own “let- the-private-sector-do-it” twist on social policy, in a way that is bound to appeal to at least some parents.

But, conceding at last that their new slender minority government probably cannot win enough votes in Parliament to ram any too aggressive version of this alternative through (and tactically sensitive to Quebec’s interest in extra federal money for its already established public-sector program), they appear to be signaling some kind of fresh compromising intentions in their 2006 throne speech.

So on April 4 Mme Jean told us that: “The Government will help Canadian parents, as they seek to balance work and family life, by supporting their child care choices through direct financial support … In collaboration with the provinces and territories, employers and community non-profit organizations, it will also encourage the creation of new child care spaces,” p. 7.

(Mmm … stay tuned for what actually happens.)

4. And masses …

There are as well various notions and broad policy concepts that the Liberals alluded to in 2004 that the Conservatives are not alluding to in 2006 (at least not very much) – and vice-versa .

The Liberals in 2004, e.g., devoted a section of six paragraphs to “Aboriginal Canadians,” p. 9. The Conservatives in 2006 just commend the “new generation of Aboriginal entrepreneurs,” pp. 12 at the start of their speech, and then say that they “will seek to improve opportunity for all Canadians, including Aboriginal peoples and new immigrants,” p. 11 at the end.

Similarly, the Liberals devoted a section of nine paragraphs to “Our Environment,” pp. 1112.

The Conservatives just mention the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in the conclusion to their speech, and then say that they “will take measures to achieve tangible improvements in our environment, including reductions in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” p. 11.

The Liberals also devoted a section of seven paragraphs to “Canada’s Cities and Communities,” pp. 911. The Conservatives only briefly mention cities once in their entire speech – in connection with their section on “Tackling Crime,” p. 6.

“Tackling Crime” is as well a major Conservative theme in 2006, that finds very little precedent in the 2004 Liberal throne speech. Another unprecedented but smaller theme appears in the 2006 conclusion on p. 11: “The Government will act in Parliament to offer an apology for the Chinese Head Tax,” faced by immigrants to Canada from China in days now long gone by.

5. And other politicians too …

This last point may or may not have something to do with Prime Minister’s Harper’s concern for his two former opposition party partners, in bringing the former Liberal minority government down late last November. It has been a cause espoused, e.g.. by the new Toronto-area New Democrat MP, Olivia Chow – also the beautiful wife of NDP leader Jack Layton.

There almost seems another kind of bow to the New Democrats, when the 2006 Conservative throne speech tells us on p. 3 about a new “government that puts ordinary working people and their families first,” and that will “provide real support to ordinary working families.”

This theme then gets twisted somewhat in an entire section on “Helping Ordinary Working Canadians and Their Families,” p. 5. It turns out that the big problem such families face is that they “pay too much in tax.” (Another big and somewhat if not entirely unprecedented Conservative theme too of course – for all Canadians.)

The new Conservative government will be cutting the Goods and Services Tax introduced by the last Conservative government somewhat, since this is “the best way to lower taxes for all Canadians, including low-income Canadians who need it most.”

6. Recognizing Quebec’s uniqueness and getting started on Senate reform …

Finally, there are two items in the Conservatives’ 2006 throne speech that do not figure anywhere in the Liberals’ 2004 throne speech. They may suggest Stephen Harper’s new government will actually prove somewhat bolder in its approach to the emerging new Canadian constitutionalism of the future than their Liberal predecessors (despite the perfunctory old conservative bow to the Queen on their first page).

The first deals with the perennial Quebec question in Canadian politics: “The Government is committed to an open federalism that recognizes the unique place of a strong, vibrant Quebec in a united Canada. It will work with the government and legislature of Quebec in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration to advance the aspirations of Quebecers,” p. 8.

This, it would seem, is partly addressed to Mr. Harper’s Bloc Quebecois allies in putting an end to the last or 38th Parliament. And he will almost certainly also need the BQ if both his new minority government and the new 39th Parliament are going to survive for any length of time. (Unless the New Democrats and the one Independent MP from Quebec City can somehow do the trick alone in some parliamentary emergency?)

The words here would seem addressed as well to the people of Quebec themselves, whom some now say Mr. Harper is ultimately hoping will give him a majority government in the next federal election. Who of course knows how all this will work out in the end? But it does appear to have opened some fresh ground on the Quebec question – and perhaps even in a useful way.

(Cynics might say it is just going over old ground that former Conservative leader Brian Mulroney failed to tread successfully in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Mr. Mulroney was from and of Quebec himself. Stephen Harper is from Alberta – and grew up in Ontario.)

The second item of this sort also appears on p. 8 of the 2006 throne speech: “Building on the work begun in the last Parliament, this Government will seek to involve parliamentarians and citizens in examining the challenges facing Canada’s electoral system and democratic institutions. At the same time, it will explore means to ensure that the Senate better reflects both the democratic values of Canadians and the needs of Canada’s regions.

In 2004 the Liberals had already said that they too would “build on the work of Parliamentary committees, involve parliamentarians in the review of key appointments, and examine the need and options for reform of our democratic institutions, including electoral reform,” p. 14. And again nothing much on this front actually happened over the next year and a half.

But the Liberals said nothing about Senate reform in 2004. They too claim to believe in some sort of Senate reform ultimately. But they do not believe, so far at least, in starting to do anything about it right now. While it is still the great confusing mystery of current Canadian constitutional debate, Senate reform could be quite good for Canada down the road. And it arguably makes some real sense to get started on it now.

At any rate, recognizing “the unique place of a strong, vibrant Quebec in a united Canada” and getting started on Senate reform are arguably the most interesting parts of the new government’s 2006 throne speech. It may well be that if Mr. Harper’s regime in Ottawa is really going to do any good for the Canadian people, this is where it will get done.

The rest of the new Conservatives’ program, you might reasonably argue – as suggested in their first throne speech at any rate – is just warmed-over small ideological twists on what the Liberals were already doing (and doing well enough, to judge from the latest Statistics Canada numbers on the Canadian economy).

With a few key forward-looking things left out – like aboriginal peoples, cities, and the environment. (And then there’s decriminalizing marijuana and gay marriage too of course – which never quite get talked about explicitly in anyone’s throne speech, yet.)

And then there is also the question of why we are still calling these things “Throne Speeches.” Well, no one has yet come up with a better term. So why not – for the time being at least?

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