Harper has an opportunity to lay out his vision for the future

There's lots of money for programs but PM has to be careful how he spends it

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The Gazette, Monday, August 6, 2007

A cabinet shuffle is one way a government can reset the clock at mid-mandate, and a throne speech is another. Both now appear to be in the works for the Harper government, which needs some new messengers, as well as a new message.

The prime minister took all the fun of cabinet speculation the other day by frankly acknowledging the probability of a shuffle, and quite soon. Ministers and their staffs have been told to be on call in Ottawa next week which, in mid-August, can mean only one thing.

A cabinet shuffle is one thing; the prime minister carries it around in his head. A throne speech is quite another; it is an agenda for government and the entire system gets caught up in the preparation.

First, the Prime Minister's Office asks departments for their ideas. Then, the Finance Department asks how much they will cost. It becomes a question of pride for departments to have a paragraph in a throne speech. By custom, even the governor-general gets a paragraph, on the topic of her choice.

The rest is written at PMO.

When I was holding the pen on the 1986 throne speech, the assistant deputy secretary of state came to see me and said that, as 1987 would be the International Year of Literacy, it deserved its own paragraph as a government priority in the throne speech.

"That's nice," I replied. "What have you got?"

"I've got $50 million," replied Richard Dicerni, who is now the deputy minister of Industry.

Literacy went into the throne speech. That's pretty much how it works. If you've got an idea, show them the money. Or get it.

Fortunately for Stephen Harper, the land is strong. We live in a season of unprecedented plenty. In an era when budget surpluses continuously exceed forecasts, money is no problem. Beyond paying down debt, there is plenty of money for new program spending. Harper just has to be careful how he spends it.

In the 2007 budget, program spending grew by nearly eight per cent, or almost three times as fast as the economy. Such core Conservative constituencies as the business community and taxpayer activists noted tax cuts had been given short shrift.

"Canadians still pay too much tax," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said in his last budget speech. It's a line that could go right into a throne speech. Tax cuts might not be very sexy, but they fit right in with a productivity agenda, an issue close to the heart of Kevin Lynch, the clerk of the Privy Council.

Sean Finn, the chairperson of the 170,000-member Canadian Chamber of Commerce, notes in a current Policy Options article that a widening productivity gap with the United States, and a looming labour shortage, are two of the most pressing economic issues facing the country.

Tax cuts are only one means of addressing a productivity agenda. Reducing barriers to interprovincial trade would be another, and the provinces, led by Alberta and British Columbia, are finally disposed to move in this direction. This is a question of Ottawa's leadership in the federation.

And then there's money for higher education, which is critical to the country's international competitiveness. While education is a provincial jurisdiction, Ottawa accounts for about 25 per cent of funding for post-secondary education. Thanks primarily to the Canada Research Chairs, Canada now leads the G7 on higher education research and development as a percentage of output. But universities remain desperately underfunded relative to their very real needs.

Renewing infrastructure is another developing issue in federal-provincial affairs. It is now half a century since the Trans Canada Highway and U.S. Interstate systems were built and as recent events have reminded us, many of these structures are maturing at a dangerous rate.

Arctic sovereignty and defence are interlocking national priorities and no throne speech would be complete without references to the environment and climate change.

There are two kinds of throne speech. One is what's known as a Christmas tree, full of trinkets. The other is a visionary agenda for action.

Prime ministers would prefer the latter, but more often than not end up with the latter. Harper's five priorities of his first throne speech were mostly a checklist to keep his campaign promises. The next throne speech will be an opportunity for him to define his ideas of the country, and where he wants to take it.

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