“Seizing Canada’s moment.”
It’s an odd title for a Throne Speech that was absent any kind of momentous vision for this country.
“Seizing” the moment would mean tackling the challenges that today’s Canada faces: stagnant or falling wages for middle- and lower-income Canadians; crises in Aboriginal education, food, housing, and missing and murdered women; high youth unemployment; eroding citizen trust in democracy; and environmental degradation, to name but a few.
The throne speech did not offer any real substance on these issues. There was no mention of climate change — only a renewed commitment to oil and gas regulations already twice delayed. Nothing on addressing either persistent inequality or poverty reduction. And there were only facile musings on addressing the challenges facing First Nations communities, and no commitment to an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women — a necessary project that was just this week called for by a visiting UN Special Rapporteur.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Canadians didn’t receive any information on how the government plans to deal with the growing Senate spending scandals.
Instead, the speech outlined its clearest commitment yet to austerity, and to a leaner and meaner government, no matter the cost to our standard of living.
The speech promised, incredibly, to introduce balanced-budget legislation that would require the government to have “balanced budgets during normal economic times and concrete timelines to return to balance in the event of an economic crisis.” What constitutes ‘normal’ remains vague. These are rather radical promises.
Given that there is always some uncertainty attached to fiscal and economic projections, the federal government would have to plan for modest surpluses to avoid deficits if such balanced-budget legislation were in place. Never mind that Stephen Harper would have broken this law in every year of his eight in power.
Yet the Harper government is also promising expensive new tax cuts for Canadian families as soon as the budget is balanced, almost certainly in the form of a costly and unfair income-splitting scheme which will mainly help high-income families with a stay-at-home spouse.
To square the circle, the government says it will freeze operating budgets, which means that federal government programs will have to be cut just to fund cost of living adjustments for federal workers. And they promise a new round of spending cuts to public services, the selling-off of Canadian assets, and a renewed attack on federal government workers.
Put it all together, and the Harper government’s fiscal agenda is to run budget surpluses while cutting taxes for the affluent, all of which is to be funded by even more cuts to the programs upon which Canadians rely.
Where’s the plan to give needed relief to middle- and lower-income families? All the average Canadian received was a bag of ‘consumer-first’ goodies that smack of a bogus vote-buying strategy after eight years of lax regulation that put industry first, and the safety and rights of consumers second.
Time will tell whether Mr. Harper’s attempt to distract Canadians with these boutique policies will work. Meanwhile, Canadians can expect more mean and evidence-averse crime policy, including a promise to turn life sentences “so that a life sentence means a sentence for life.” Rehabilitation, we already know, has no place in Stephen Harper’s Canada.
Those hoping the government might signal a willingness to diversify the Canadian economy away from excessive resource dependence and perhaps address manufacturing woes will be disappointed. One bright spot was a vague promise to “enshrine the polluter pays principle into law”, something that would be a complete about-face on the government’s record if carried through.
The throne speech is right that we live in an uncertain world. But we do have some measure of control over how to navigate it. Today, the government laid out a vision of a Canada less fiscally flexible, a government less ambitious and fair, and a country certain to be less equipped to make needed public investments and care for those most in need.
A version of this was originally published on National News Watch.