Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Throne Speech thin gruel before budget beef?

When it comes to events such as throne speeches and budgets I like to read the text myself before reading any broadcast or print coverage, so I can form my own opinion before wading into the barrage of media, pundit and politico spin. Of course, I can’t tear myself away from Twitter, but other than some 140 characters-or-less commentary, I largely avoided the spin before reading the speech after work.

I printed the speech out over 10 pages, but the volume certainty didn’t indicate heavy content. While throne speeches generally are thin gruel – broad statements of direction rather than specific proposals – this one seemed more empty than usual.

Perhaps they’re saving the meat for the budget tomorrow; that likely is the case. Still, they needn’t have gone to 10 pages if that was the case. Because they didn’t really say much that they haven’t said before. Key word being said. There was a long laundry list of things they’ve long been talking about and promising action on, but by and large they’ve failed to deliver, or have continually lowered the bar.

We can draw some signals from the text. Stimulus spending will continue for one more year but that’s it. Cuts will be coming was the underlying message. A few areas are out of bounds – no cuts to pensions or health and education transfers and no tax increases (except jacking-up the airport security tax and the payroll tax on job creation). Everything else, it would seem, will be fair game. Later.

There will be some symbolism now. Freezing MP/Senator and ministerial salaries. Freezing departmental operating budgets. An administrative efficiency drive, and a departmental program spending review.

A few thoughts come up here. One, if they wanted real symbolism on salaries the Conservatives would slash the size of their cabinet, saving real money on ministerial salaries, travel and perks while also clearing cabinet deadwood. Second, freezing departmental operating budgets is amusing when they’ve been spending crazy amounts on useless ads pimping their Economic Action Plan, which during the Olympics started at $90,000/spot and peaked at $365,000 during the men’s hockey final. Cut there if you’re serious, and also look at your massive increase in spending on polling. Third, I don’t buy them finding much of anything around administrative efficiency and waste. They supposedly looked at this a few years ago. Did they decide to leave some waste for later?

Countless paragraphs were just boilerplate, jumbles of work that sound nice but say little. Small business good. Digital economy good. We like puppies, and volunteers. And volunteer puppies.

There were a few hard news nuggets. Lifting the foreign ownership restrictions on telcos and satellite firms is a big one, given the Global Live and MacDonald Detwiller decisions. That will need legislation and will generate interesting, and heated, debate. Then, of course, there was the pledge to make O Canada gender-neutral, which just screams distraction.

Otherwise, the word “continue” was common as the government rehashed old positions. They’ll still wage war with the Wheat Board. They’re still sorry for the residential schools, in case you were wondering if they’d changed their mind. The Quebecois are a nation, and that still means nothing. And they’re still promising things for the North.

They were adept at using a lot of words to say nothing. Nearly half a page on seniors, recognizing the demographic bubble coming, just saying basically we’re on it. And we did income splitting a few years ago. Hardly inspiring of confidence.

And, of course, they still think crime is bad, and they’re still going to do all those things they were going to do before but were never in much of a hurry to get done because it’s more fun to pretend everyone is against them and loves criminals.

All in all, a throne speech that would normally fade from thought in a day, all the more so with the budget coming Thursday. Hardly the call to action of a government looking to plot a new agenda. There’s no rationale for a prorogation reset here. They certainly didn’t spend the break putting this thing together.

For all its length, what’s notable is what the speech didn’t say: nothing on the challenges facing our health care system. The word poverty doesn’t appear once in this speech. Housing appears just once, an offhand mention talking about stimulus projects. Nothing on education and learning, which will be essential to create the jobs of the future they supposedly consider important.

The throne speech told me nothing about this government I didn’t already know. Perhaps they’ll surprise me in the budget. We’ll find out tomorrow. Based on this speech though, the Harper government remains an aimless ship adrift, oblivious to the challenges around it. Little hope that will change tomorrow.

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Antonia Z said...

Excellent analysis. Thanks

Jeff said...

Thanks Antonia.

CanadianSense said...

The Economic Action Plan is not "theirs" and funding is done across Canada.

The LPOC supported every measure until September 2009 without using a single opposition to offer an Alternative Budget, Policy and chose to blame the recession on Harper.

In 2010 instead of blaming the gov't, why don't they challenge and offer an alternative "vision" and policy inside Parliament and let all 308 MP debate the Liberal ideas?