The Harper government won’t deliver its speech from the throne until Wednesday, but the theme has been telegraphed for months, and much of the contents well-leaked over the past week. The government will appropriate the middle class theme that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has been trumpeting since he began his leadership run, and will appropriate several mini-policies the NDP has proposed over the years, including ones the Conservatives have voted against in the past.
It’s time-worn political tactics to attempt to neuter the opposition by outflanking them, and the Conservatives are clearly concerned with the apparent durability of current Liberal popularity under Trudeau. Normally they’d want to strengthen the NDP to balance off the Liberals, but borrowing some of their micro-policies allows them to put some grizzle on their middle class bones and, in the best Conservative tradition of micro-targeting, allows them to offer something tangible to their target voters, like the transit and arts program credits of past budgets, at little cost.
What micro-policies? We’re hearing through carefully-placed media leaks, and on the record interviews like Sunday's from industry minister James Moore, about airline regulations to strengthen passenger rights in situations such as overbooking, wireless carrier regulations to favour users when it comes to contracts and subsidies, regulations around the bundling of channels in cable packages, and other things of this nature. You can never go wrong picking on Air Canada and the big three wireless carriers, after all. It’s being billed as a “consumer agenda.”
Besides trying to outflank the opposition, it’s a pretty transparent attempt by the Conservatives to change the channel from the drip drip of a Senate scandal that seems to be in no hurry of letting up. Which isn’t to say it won’t work. At some point, political scandal becomes white noise. But when Canadians hear (no doubt in a coming wave of taxpayer-funded Economic Action Plan ads) that the government is going to make their cable bills cheaper, that’s real to them and their lives, today. It will resonate. So it very much has merit.
Let’s put aside for now that ideological conservatives must be aghast at what they’re hearing. If a Liberal government proposed an agenda of across the board sweeping intervention in private industry, protecting consumers against greedy corporations, the right would go insane. Instead, let’s ask, does what is being proposed by the government really qualify as a middle class agenda?
To hear Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the problem with the leaked throne speech contents is that the Conservatives are late (and probably not overly genuine) converts to the consumer agenda, and should have voted for these things when the NDP proposed them and/or put them forward years earlier in their government.
OK, sure. But how about mentioning the stunning lack of ambition of the Harper government? With a majority government, having hit the reset button to put forward a new agenda for governing Canada, they come up with cable bills, cell phones and airline overbooking? This is why they want to govern? This is their agenda for a 21st Century Canada?
I have no doubt these items will be superficially popular with middle class Canadians. So would buying everyone a pony. And if middle class Canadians were to take a break from running the kids around to extra-circulars and making school lunches for a moment, they’d realize having to pay for more cable channels than they want isn’t their biggest worry.
Their bigger worries are probably how are they going to save for their children’s education and pay off their mortgage at the same time? How are they going to be able to care for their ageing parents when they’re no longer able to care for themselves? How will they ever be able to afford to retire? And what if one of them loses their jobs?
We need a government that looks at the bigger picture, and thinks to the future. The government's priority shouldn’t be cell phones and cable bills, and the problem isn’t that they didn’t ban airline overbooking sooner. The problem is this government’s stunning lack of ambition. Stunning, and deliberate, as the Conservatives don’t see a role for government in education, in health care, in elder care (and yet, bizarrely, they do in regulating cell phone plans).