Surprise! No surprises in Conservatives' Throne Speech

Harper hopes to ride his Top 5 list to a majority government

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 5, 2006

It was the Holiday Inn Throne Speech - no surprises.

Stephen Harper's Top 5 list might be a platform for graduating from minority to majority government. But it falls short of constituting an agenda for the country.

Still, if Harper can drill the Top 5 into the minds of voters, and deliver on them, then he can go to the country anytime after next spring and ask for a mandate to implement a full agenda of change.

The most striking aspect of the Top 5 is that it's a consumer checklist: the Accountability Act, the GST cut, child-care cheques, the health-care guarantee and the crime package. They are all issues that play well with the middle-class coalition that elected Harper.

Almost as important as the check list itself, is Harper's perceived ability to deliver on it. It is, as pollster Nik Nanos observes, about being prime minister and being perceived that way.

Job 1 is the Accountability Act where Nanos, the SES Research guy who got the election dead right, says there is no margin of error, and no tolerance for ethical screwups by the new government.

While the Conservatives cannot overdeliver in this area, they might have overpromised in terms of separating themselves from the real world.

For example, it's arguably unconstitutional to prevent former ministers, deputy ministers and senior staff from doing business with the government for five years after leaving it. It's a clear-cut case of an unreasonable limitation on freedom of association under Article 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And the government has advice to this effect from the Department of Justice. But it's going ahead with the five-year moratorium anyway, because it made a promise and wants to keep it. Which isn't to say it can't be amended to two years at the committee stage, if only to stay within constitutional bounds.

The GST cut, from seven to six per cent immediately and five per cent within five years, is just a line item in the budget expected within weeks. It's a no-brainer for the opposition parties, as well, because the only people in the country who actually like the GST are economists and officials of the Department of Finance, and there are fewer of those than there are middle-class voters.

The $100 a month per child daycare payout is something the opposition parties also understand - they don't want to get between parents and these cheques. As Jaime Watt, of the Toronto public-opinion research firm Navigator, puts it: "That's money already spent."

However, all the opposition parties have a problem with the Conservatives exiting the Liberals' $5-billion transfer plan for daycare spaces in the provinces. For the Liberals and NDP, it's a question of conviction and constituency. For the Bloc Quebecois, it's about Quebec getting the remaining

$800 million on the $1.1-billion deal signed with the previous government.

But if Jean Premier Charest is prepared to roll the money into the discussion on the federal-provincial fiscal imbalance, then why should Gilles Duceppe force an election? Besides, ending a program might not even require a vote in the House, although starting a new one certainly does.

It is not in Duceppe's interest to force a federal election before the next provincial one in Quebec, expected in the spring or fall of 2007. His first priority now is to help elect a Parti Quebecois government as the first winning condition on the road to a third referendum.

The health-care guarantee is about reducing waiting times for elective procedures by allowing patients to go outside their home province, and even outside the system if they don't have surgery within acceptable waiting times. This was the recommendation of Liberal Senator Michael Kirby's committee back in 2002. And what it means, in public policy terms, is that Kirby has won and Roy Romanow has lost the argument about repairing the public health-care system in this country.

And, finally, the crime package - do the crime, do the time, especially when guns are involved. Harper himself was playing tough cop on this issue on Monday in a speech to police chiefs, while Justice Minister Vic Toews was playing the good cop, indicating the government was prepared to look at amendments that might lighten its effect, if not its intent. Harper used the occasion, the opening day of the new Parliament, to motivate his right-wing base, as if to assure them he hadn't forgotten about them. Lock 'em up and throw away the key, sort of.

There's your Top 5 list. There will be a quiz.

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