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Harper delivers a tough message in the throne speech, then leaves town

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The pre-throne speech spin told us that Wednesday's event would serve to unveil the new, kinder and gentler Conservative government.

We are not the big business party, chief Conservative spinner, Industry Minister James Moore told interviewers. We are really the consumers' party, he said.

Well, it seems the spinners and those who drafted the actual speech were not on the same page.

The touted consumer stuff is buried deep in the speech and promises very little. There are promises about roaming charges and pick-and-pay cable television, but neither the promised air travellers' bill of rights nor much that is concrete on bank and credit card charges.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

In fact, what the speech does emphasize is not the Mr. Nice Guy stuff we were promised. It is, rather, red meat, core conservative stuff.

It starts with the promise (that was pointedly not leaked beforehand) of balanced budget legislation -- the policy non-sequitur to end all policy non-sequiturs.

For critics who might say it is hypocritical for a government that not long ago resorted to massive deficit financing to propose balanced budget legislation, the speech has an important qualification.

It states that the proposed legislation would allow for deficits in times of "economic crisis" -- although even in such times there would have to be "concrete timelines for returning to balance."

The speech then goes on to promise to freeze what it calls the "federal operation budget." The goal of that measure, in case anyone might have missed it, is to "restrain hiring."

The Conservatives still have the public service in their sights, and they want to make that quite clear.

In addition to the bit on the operating budget, this speech talks pointedly about increasing "performance accountability" in the public service. It seems that treating its own employees as part of the problem and not an essential element of the solution is becoming a habit with the Harper government.

In much the same vein, the speech makes reference to the government's longstanding efforts to cut so-called "red tape" for businesses. Those over-zealous efforts were, in part, at the root of the much-publicized abuses of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The speech claims that the government is still committed to vague reforms in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. It says that, somehow, Canadians should get the first crack at all jobs.

Policies on opposite ends of the spectrum

There is one non-partisan, evidence-based, solid policy in the speech: the promise to work with British Columbia and Ontario (and other willing provinces) to set up what the speech calls "a cooperative regulatory system for securities and capital markets."

In this world of mega-corporations and monster concentrations of wealth, it makes little sense for a medium-sized economy such as Canada's to have the fragmented system it has for overseeing and regulating equity markets.

There is nothing political or particularly Conservative about this one sane and reasonable idea.

It is, indeed, a rare case in which the Harper government's policy did not emanate from the fevered brains of the political backroom operators. This policy was, in fact, carefully crafted by those professional public servants the Conservatives so love to denigrate and disrespect.

At the other end of the spectrum, the single most disingenuous -- in fact, downright dishonest -- statement in the speech harkens back to former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's package of refugee reforms, Bill C-31. The speech actually boasts that those reforms "increased protection for genuine refugees."

The truth is exactly the opposite.

Kenney's reforms created a two-tier system for refugee claimants, depriving many of any realistic chance of proving their case. Kenney also yanked basic and necessary health care away from a large number of asylum seekers in Canada.

Conservatives boasted about that latter nasty and gratuitous cut in their fundraising calls to identified core supporters. It is obvious the Harper team thinks there is a market out there for the politics of small-mindedness and resentment.

A new trade deal on the horizon

The big news that the speech did telegraph is that Canada is very close to reaching a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union. In fact, on Thursday, the Prime Minster will not attend the first day of Parliament following the throne speech. He will fly to Europe, supposedly to either finalize or sign the agreement.

For the Prime Minister to be absent at the very opening of a new session is, at least according to Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, unprecedented.

Harper seems to hope that this new trade deal will help rebrand him and his government.

We will soon see what Canadians might have to sacrifice to achieve a trade deal with Europe, if there is indeed a deal.

One group that was definitely sacrificed in these negotiations are the central and east European Roma, who for more than a decade have been seeking asylum in Canada, fleeing severe discrimination and neo-Nazi violence.

One consequence of the Kenney refugee reforms was to declare virtually all European Union countries to be so-called "safe countries of origin," a designation that has almost totally cut off the inflow of Roma to Canada.

That "safe country" status, with all of its consequences, may not be a written part of any deal Harper could sign, but it was clearly a precondition for a trade agreement -- an agreement that is now a key piece of Harper's political strategy.

Devil in the details: Resource development, First Nations rights and the environment

And what about massive resource development plans, the rights of First Nations and the environment? Those were high on the policy agenda just a few months ago, but the speech has very little to say about them.

It makes the vaguest of vague commitments to Aboriginal peoples' having the "opportunity to benefit" from resource exploitation; while on the environment Harper shamelessly steals an idea from NDP Leader Mulcair and promises to "enshrine the polluter-pay system into law."

Sounds promising, but in this case, the devil will really be in the details.

If you want a better sense of what the Harper government really means when it talks about the environment, you only have to consult what the speech says on climate change policy.

Near the end of the hour-long rhetorical exercise, the government promises to "build on its record as the first government to achieve an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by working with provinces to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sectors, while ensuring Canadian companies remain competitive."

Let's deconstruct that seemingly anodyne statement.

In the first place, the Harper government cannot take any credit for Canada's greenhouse gas reductions. That was all the work of the sluggish economy and the genuine efforts of a number of provinces, including Ontario and Quebec.

Then, to say that the government will "build on a record" of non-action -- or of retrograde action that included withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord and backing away from a previous commitment to a cap-and-trade system -- and qualify that "commitment" by pledging to ensure the competitiveness of the oil and gas sector … well that is an environmental pledge that sounds far more ominous than promising.

Law-and-order policies and a seemingly softer side

Similarly ominous -- and almost scary -- is the deep red meat, hardcore stuff in the parts of the speech that deal with so-called law-and-order policies.

In the speech the Conservatives now pledge to introduce a new life sentence that does not even include the possibility of parole after 25 years. Try telling people who work in corrections that this sort of draconian sentence will make their jobs any easier. Those corrections folks will almost universally admit that prisoners without the slightest hope of ever seeing daylight again have no incentive whatsoever to make an effort to rehabilitate themselves.

Harper's throne speech also tells vulnerable sex workers that the government's priority will be to uphold the existing prostitution laws; and it sends a message to drug addicts and those who treat them that the government plans to close what it calls "loopholes that allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment."

Near the end, in an attempt to shore up the government's softer side, the speech trots out the Harper government's oft-repeated commitment (salutary, as far as it goes) to maternal and child health in the developing world.

This little nod to the softer side is much mitigated, however, by the fact that the government will not fund any organizations that facilitate abortions. And that even includes abortions for young girls who are victims of rape or of those forced marriages the government so vigorously condemns.

Somehow the Harper government really thinks it is possible to be against the forced marriages of children, but not in favour of dealing with one of the most obvious and far-reaching consequence of such marriages. 

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