MPs back Oct. 16

Harper will delay recall of Parliament until after the Ontario election

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Any day now, the Harper government will announce a new session of Parliament, beginning with a Throne Speech on Oct. 16.

This is no October surprise, and the date is no coincidence. Not only does it fall after Thanksgiving on Oct 8, but after the Ontario election on Oct. 10. The Conservatives in Ottawa want to stay off television and out of the news to give John Tory and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives a clear shot at defeating Dalton McGuinty's Liberals at Queen's Park.

McGuinty will be running against Mike Harris, who isn't on the ballot. McGuinty also will be running against Ottawa, demanding a fair share for Ontario. But Ottawa will not be running against him, and Stephen Harper will not oblige by providing a convenient target through question period minefields planted by the Liberals and NDP, with a view to tilting the provincial campaign.

McGuinty will just have to stand and win the election on his own, and that isn't as obvious as it might seem for a first-term premier sitting on a strong economy. Ontario's manufacturing heartland has lost 60,000 jobs in the last year alone, and the province's unemployment rate is actually half a point above the national average. And John Tory also is a much less polarizing and much more progressive opponent than the political ghost of Mike Harris. The Ontario campaign looks to be an extremely competitive one, and if Tory loses it won't be because Harper was getting in the way.

The late recall of the House, which had been scheduled to resume on Sept. 17, also gives the government a month of breathing room out of the circus atmosphere of question period. And it gives the ministers involved in last week's cabinet shuffle another month to brief up on their new responsibilities, without being on the daily firing line.

This applies particularly to Maxime Bernier at Foreign Affairs and Peter MacKay at Defence, as well as Josée Verner at Heritage. Bernier, with no background in foreign policy, has an entire world to learn about in a portfolio that is unforgiving of ministerial gaffes. Bernier has only to ask his predecessor, MacKay, about the steepness of the learning curve.

"It's like cramming for finals every night," MacKay told a friend when he was only a few months on the job, and still learning his way around after a very shaky start.

So while September would normally be back-to-school month in Ottawa, the calendar will be reset for mid-October.

With the cabinet shuffle receding from view, the Throne Speech will be the next big talking point.

What will be in it? And will the government survive a vote on it?

The content of the speech might well determine the outcome of the vote on it.

Harper was elected on five priorities and his first Throne Speech dealt with that in very focused transactional terms. His second Throne Speech presents him with an opportunity for a broader vision of government at a time when he has run out of message.

Over the next several weeks until Thanksgiving, the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council will be inundated with suggestions for the speech.

Those ideas can be roughly sorted into four policy boxes: the economy and taxes, the Canadian federation, Canada and the world, the environment and climate change.

There's almost certain to be an emphasis on a productivity agenda, even though it's hard to soundbite and even harder to sell. But try this: Canadians aren't rich enough. Americans produce and, thus, earn nearly $10,000 more per capita than we do. Part of the reason is that we're overtaxed. And after program spending grew by eight per cent in the last budget, three times as fast as the economy, it's time for the Conservatives to deliver on tax cuts. With these surpluses, there has never been a better time.

On the federation, Harper will propose legislative, but not constitutional, limits to the federal spending power. As a classical division-of-powers federalist he will be very comfortable with this. The Liberals and the NDP will oppose this, and Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois will have another decision to make. They couldn't oppose fiscal-imbalance money for Quebec and the provinces in the last budget, and they would be hard pressed to explain opposing something all Quebec governments have been seeking for decades.

As for Canada's role in the world, the Throne Speech might be the place for Harper to announce, absent a parliamentary consensus, Canada will fulfill its obligations in Kandahar to February 2009, but afterward rotate out to another part Afghanistan and allow another NATO power to take up that heavy burden in the south. Harper, apparently, informed George W. Bush as much at Montebello this week. The Throne Speech would be an appropriate setting to share such a decision with the country.

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