Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper makes pitch to voters

Federal Tory agenda put together with eye to election in 2015

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JUSTIN TANG / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife, Sharon, share some humour following the throne speech Wednesday.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon following the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday October 16, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

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JUSTIN TANG / THE CANADIAN PRESS Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife, Sharon, share some humour following the throne speech Wednesday. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon following the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday October 16, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA -- Mandatory balanced-budget legislation, interprovincial booze runs, public-sector bashing and lifetime prison terms are among a grab bag of populist Conservative promises in a mid-mandate policy makeover.

The Tory-blue agenda was included in a lengthy speech from the throne Wednesday by Gov. Gen. David Johnston that spent almost as much time congratulating the Harper government on past achievements as laying out future priorities.

As such, the document marked the belated return of Parliament and the unofficial start of a federal election campaign that is two years away.

"Tell the prime minister you've got his back -- and help us seize Canada's moment," the Conservative party operations director, Fred Delorey, urged party faithful in a mass email shortly after the late-afternoon speech from the throne concluded in the Senate chamber.

Watching Stephen Harper's back appears to be a catchphrase as beleaguered Conservatives return to the parliamentary fray. The prime minister is beset by ongoing Senate expense scandals and polls that consistently show his party tied or trailing the rejuvenated Liberals and near neck and neck with the official Opposition New Democrats.

The throne speech made several unalloyed pitches for consumer affection, with promises to "unbundle" cable TV packages, reduce smartphone roaming charges, permit the transport of beer and spirits between provinces and stop companies from charging for providing paper bills.

It's the Conservative response to a broad appeal for those ill-defined "middle-class" voters Liberals and New Democrats covet.

"To change the channel, it's going to take more than a few watered-down NDP proposals to do it," sniffed NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau dismissed the "veneer of little solutions" listed in the speech. "We have real problems in this country and this government is more preoccupied with its own problems than the problems of Canadians."

Likely the day's biggest drama came when police evacuated the historic Langevin Block, home of Harper's working office, due to a suspicious package and bomb threat.

Police took a person into custody and later said the package had been "rendered safe using a robot" before the building across the street from Parliament Hill was reopened.

In the Senate chamber crowded with invited guests -- but absent high-profile ex-Conservative miscreants Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau -- the speech was delivered to near silence.

There was the announcement of an imminent free-trade deal with the European Union and a pledge to confer honorary Canadian citizenship on Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen and Nobel Peace Prize nominee who survived a Taliban attack on her school bus in October 2012 in which she was shot in the head.

There was also the promise of a new cyberbullying law and a hint of abolishing the Senate.

"The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish," said the speech, delivered in the chamber Harper has packed with appointed loyalists, several of whom have caused his government grief.

The line prompted a rare murmur from the assembled senators and government guests.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus intends to raise a point of privilege first thing today, asking Speaker Andrew Scheer to find Harper misled the Commons last spring when he insisted no one in his office knew his chief of staff bailed out Sen. Mike Duffy -- an assurance contradicted over the summer by the RCMP.

Nigel Wright gave Duffy $90,000 so he could reimburse the Senate for wrongly claimed housing allowances and living expenses. Wright resigned as Harper's chief of staff in May, shortly after news of the transaction leaked out.

But the speech was more noteworthy for how it hammered away at what political strategists call "wedge" issues that will differentiate the Conservatives from their opponents at the ballot box.

While a pending free-trade deal with the European Union is a significant national event, it merited only a single line in the speech. By contrast, measures that come down hard on public-sector workers -- a primarily Conservative preoccupation -- took up almost an entire page.

Parents will be given a say "before drug-injection sites open in their communities," the government promised, adding it will close loopholes that "allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment."

Both measures are a direct contrast to Trudeau's Liberal musings about legalizing marijuana.

More tough-on-convicts measures are promised, including language to ensure "a life sentence means a sentence for life," and a promise to ensure immigrants to Canada are selected based on the needs of employers.

Mulcair referred several times to the speech's "red meat for (Harper's) Reformist base," and no promise was more conservative than the balanced-budget pledge.

The proposed legislation "will require balanced budgets during normal economic times and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis," according to the throne speech.

The Conservatives came to office in 2006 with a $13-billion surplus but whittled that down to a structural deficit even before the global recession struck in late 2008, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2013 A3

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