Harper's five priorities have morphed into five themes

Speech conveys a sense of how the PM sees the country and how he means to lead it

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 17, 2007

From the five priorities of the first Throne Speech to the five themes of the second, the Harper government likes to package its policy agenda in fives.

But there's a substantial difference between Harper's first and second throne speeches. The five priorities were electoralist and transactional in character - a shopping list Harper used to get elected and, once in office, a checklist of promises kept.

The second Throne Speech's five themes are more of a look ahead to the next election than a reflection on the last one.

The first Harper Throne Speech was about keeping the specific promises on the Accountability Act (check), the GST cut (check), child-care cheques (check), a crime package and the health-care guarantee (still very much works in progress, so much so that the crime bill has evolved from a priority to a theme).

The second Harper Throne Speech lays out five broader themes: Canadian sovereignty, the economy, the federation, the environment and the crime bill. And this is meant to convey a sense of Harper's idea of the country, where he wants to take it, and how he means to lead it.

And make no mistake: This is very much Harper's speech. It was written "upstairs" in the Privy Council Office on the third floor of the Langevin Block. The clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, held the pen in an exercise that is normally the prerogative of the Prime Minister's Office. But Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, is a former academic who is accustomed to collegiality and generally indifferent to turf wars.

In any event, Harper personally edited the Throne Speech at every stage of the drafting. Harper, Lynch and Brodie are all used to being the smartest guy in the room, and when they are all in the same room, they agree that Harper is.

The five themes are all wide spaces with specific policy frameworks. For example, Afghanistan and Arctic sovereignty both come under the fuller theme of national sovereignty, one exercised in a faraway mission and the other proclaimed in the North.

While Afghanistan remains part of the sovereignty theme, the appointment of former Liberal foreign affairs minister John Manley to lead a bi-partisan advisory panel has taken the Afghanistan issue off the floor of the House. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion attacked two panel members, Paul Tellier and Derek Burney, for having served Brian Mulroney's government while they were top members of the public service. His attack on the integrity of two of the most outstanding public servants of their generation left Ottawa's mandarin class gasping for air.

Arctic sovereignty is an emotional touchstone. Even though most Canadians have never set foot there, our sense of country is strongly identified with it. But going back half a century to John Diefenbaker, successive governments have talked the talk on this file without walking the walk. The test of Harper's good intentions will be when he shows us the money.

As it happens, there is a convergence of compelling issues around Arctic sovereignty, largely due to climate change. The melting of the polar ice cap raises such issues as the navigation of Arctic waters, notably the fabled Northwest Passage, and the sustainable development of the treasure trove of oil and gas beneath it, to say nothing of sustaining a way of life for the First Nations.

If the Americans claim the Northwest Passage as open sea, and the Russians are dropping flags onto the floor of the Arctic Ocean, Canada needs to protect its territorial, environmental and commercial interests aggressively.

Then, the economy. Think tax cuts. Ottawa has never enjoyed such an abundance of fiscal wealth. Having just paid down $14 billion of the national debt in one shot, Harper is looking at a $20-billion surplus in the current fiscal year. Looking ahead to the budget in February, a $10-billion middle-class tax cut would be a handy thing for Harper to take into an election.

On the federation, Harper proposes limits to federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. This is, quite simply, classical federalism of the kind Harper has always advocated. Quite conveniently, it will also divide the Liberals' Quebec caucus from their fellows in the rest of the country as nothing has since Meech Lake.

The environment is not only about climate change, but moving to a post-Kyoto framework, not just adopting new emissions reductions targets but also acknowledging that the old ones are unattainable in the 2008-2012 Kyoto time line.

As a poison pill, that would be tough one for Dion to swallow.

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