Friday, October 18, 2013

Thoughts on the Throne Speech: Part One

Source: National Post: Throne Speech 2013: The Full Text

Well, that was an ordeal.

In one of the longer Throne Speeches in recent memory, Governor General David Johnston laid out the blueprint for Stephen Harper's government over the next session of Parliament. Considering that Harper prorogued Parliament in order to hit this reset button, the result was decisively underwhelming. 

In addition to some creative historical revisionism (as has always been the case with the Harper Government), a touch of war-mongering chest thumping, and a sprinkling of wide-defined issues with ill-defined solutions, the Throne Speech was not the reset that the government was looking for. Using the source above, we'll talk about some of the things the Governor General talked about. We'll also touch a bit on some of the historical revisionism and general cheerleading that over looks facts and reality.

"By taking decisive action Canada has stayed strong where others have faltered." 

Well, there's a few things wrong with this one. As we've talked about before, the Conservatives were denying a coming financial crisis all the way through the 2008 Election campaign. Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper both denied a coming economic crisis; then when the crisis hit the US, they denied the possibility of the crisis extending to Canada. When it did, Harper dismissed it as a great time to invest in the stock market. 

The Economic Action Plan, which has been carried so proudly by this government, was born from the opposition ranks. Without the opposition threatening to topple Harper's minority government unless stimulus spending was coupled with his proposed tax cuts to corporations, Harper gave in. And while the program has left a lot to be desired, it was far from decisive. 

"And it will go further. Our Government will enshrine in law its successful and prudent approach. Our Government will introduce balanced-budget legislation. It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis."

Just like the same way the government enshrined set Election Dates? Again, however, this is incredibly loosely defined. What are normal economic times? What happens to a government that fails to meet timelines in an economic crisis? 

Essentially, this is one of those laws that sounds really good. After all, no one wants to be the party who campaigns against anti-deficit legislation. However, there will always be occasions where a government will need to go into deficit. It's almost as certain as death and taxes. I think the Harper Government has proven this point, given that they campaigned as sound financial managers and enjoyed the backing of small government/small deficit economic conservatives...Yet, they managed to ring up the single largest deficit in Canadian history.

Ultimately, as well, this is a law that will be modified by whichever party is in power. If 'normal economic times' is ill-defined, the sitting government will be able to set the guidelines and decide whether or not times are normal. As such, they will be able to decide whether or not they need to try to prevent a deficit. Which is more or less how the system works now.

It sounds nice on the surface, but when you scratch away the gold paint, it's just a block of lead underneath.

"Just as our Government manages debt, so too is it tackling spending. Every day, Canadian families make tough choices about how to spend their hard-earned money. Guided by this example, our Government will continue reducing the size and cost of Government to ensure that taxpayers get value for money."

Well, there's a lot of things wrong here.

For starters, the bureaucracy has grown under the Harper Conservatives. (LINK) So, you can't really 'continue to reduce' the size of government when you've presided over it growing. On top of this, though this should come later in our discussion, the government also committed to spending money to find Franklin's lost expedition in the North. 

An event so important in Canadian history, that I was never taught about it once in a formal education setting. I'll have a few more things to say about this idea once we get to it in the rest of the Throne Speech.

"To address this job creation gap, our Government is implementing the Canada Job Grant. It will increase employment by ensuring Canadians are able to fill job vacancies."

Kind of awkward that they left out the part about the Canada Job Grant being almost universally panned by the provinces; without whom, the project is dead in the water. Come to think of it, the Governor General did mention working with the provinces numerous times throughout the speech. But Harper's track record with the provinces (especially considering his deficit reduction plan is downshifting as much debt from the federal government to the provinces) leaves a lot to be desired. If he's hoping for provincial cooperation, he seems unlikely to find enough to get any program in full swing.

"The Government will soon complete negotiations on a comprehensive economic and trade agreement with the European Union. This agreement has the potential to create 80,000 new Canadian jobs."

The key word here is potential. But many experts, including economist Erin Weir, suggest that the Canada-EU Trade deal has more potential to cost Canada jobs. (LINK) (LINK) As you'll note, the Global news report issue on the deal suggests as many as 150,000 jobs could vanish from the Canadian marketplace as a result of the deal.

"Our Government secured and extended the softwood lumber agreement with the United States."

Some of you may not quite remember the events of 2006, so let's remember them together. The Softwood Lumber debate between Canada, the US, and NAFTA Tribunals continued to drag on. Despite Canada continuing to receive favourable rulings in NAFTA Tribunals, the US continued to unlawfully collect tariffs and duties on Canadian Softwood Lumber imported into the US.

Harper's grand deal was to allow the US to keep $1 BILLION of these illegally collected tariffs. (LINK) And in 2009, Canada and the US were in international arbitration again over the softwood lumber issue that ended with Canada having to collect an addition $68.26 million from lumber producers for export costs. (LINK)

So, I guess if you call just throwing away money that could have been spent elsewhere a success, then this was a real humdinger.

"Our Government will introduce legislation to enshrine the One-for-One Rule in law: for every new regulation added, one must be removed."

This one is a little worrying. Again, since it's bare-bones, we don't entirely know what they are suggesting. For example, would it be like your standard mail-in coupon where the regulation being removed needed to be of equal or lesser value to the one being added?

Could a new regulation saying that all small business owners must employ dogs as mascots, be used as a pretext to remove a much more serious regulation?

I guess we're asking for relativity. Again, this is one of those measures that sounds alright when you first hear it. We get the sense that we'll get new, clearer regulations to replace older, muddled ones. But if a weak regulation replaces a strong, but NEEDED, regulation then we're just asking for trouble. I'm sure there will be some expansion on this idea, but unless it is coupled with the need for the new regulation to directly address the regulation being removed, this is just another smoke screen.

"Canadians work hard for their money. And we know families are better placed to make spending decisions than governments. That is why our Government has lowered taxes, year after year—for families, for businesses, for each and every Canadian."

Again, we can look at Harper's tax record to see a lot of flaws here. As pointed out by Ralph Goodale, Harper's actions in other areas have caused price increases and tax increases in areas that Canadians may not be aware of. (LINK) Add to that that Harper's decision to slash the GST, while politically popular, contributed directly to the deficit problem that he finds our government in today.

"Canadian families work hard to make ends meet, and every dollar counts. While companies will look out for their bottom line, our Government is looking out for everyday Canadians."

This is the big one. Part of Harper's reason for proroguing was to bring forward consumer protection in the next session of Parliament. Sadly, this entire section seems mostly glossed over. Other than ripping apart TV bundles there is not much concrete here. There is talk of decreasing roaming, but no clear proposal or idea on how to do this or get the big three wireless providers to agree.

"But for the worst of all criminals, even this is not enough. Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. For them, our Government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life."

This one was a surprise, though I'm sure the right-wing base are whooping in celebration over it. This is one of the best examples of cognitive dissonance in this speech. Johnston talked about reigning in government spending, for example, but the cost of housing a prisoner for a true to word life sentence is a staggering number.

According to the Toronto Star the cost of housing an inmate in Canada's prison system for a year was $113,974. (LINK) So, let's say a 26 year old is arrested and sentence to a full life sentence. Canada's life expectancy is 80 years old. As such, our corrections facility would be housing this single individual for a minimum of 54 years. That totals $6,154,596 to incarcerate a single inmate; presuming they have the common decency to not live longer than the average life expectancy and costs don't increase (in other words, likely much more than that.)

And since Harper came to power in 2006, prison costs rose by 86%. (LINK) Which, if anything, proves that the current cost of $113,974 is only going to get higher. Effectively, this is a very costly proposal. We'll talk about prison and what it is meant to accomplish in another post, likely after this one, so for now I'll wrap up our prison talk on this.

These numbers are staggering. You can't talk about being financially prudence while also staring down the barrel of increasing costs of housing a single prisoner for life by as much as SIX MILLION dollars.

"Close loopholes that allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment."

A swipe at InSite, no doubt. The Harper Government has always been at odds with the safe injection site, and it seems like they're getting ready to make another run at shutting the place down. It also makes me wonder, in conjunction with a renewed call to battle prescription drug abuse, if the Conservatives aren't getting ready to fight the next election on a heavy anti-drug platform. After all, with Trudeau in favour, and the NDP historically inclined to study legalization, it seems like the Conservatives are entrenching as hard as they can in the anti-column.

That seems as good a place as any to take a break. A long speech requires a long post, and we will split up the remaining parts of the Throne Speech into another post. (Unless I decide to go the Peter Jackson route and decide the second part is still too large and we'll need a third.)

So, we'll talk military, arctic sovereignty, 'Canadian values', and Confederation celebration in the next post.


Bunnykins said...

Why had there been outrage about the expenses incurred by 3 Senators appointed to do not much more than fund raise for the Conservative party when the current head of Treasury Board was not sanctioned in any way for having liberated $50 million from the border security fund?

Is this not a double standard?

Scott said...

Hi bunnykins,

Great comment. I think you hit the nail right on the head in that it is indeed a double standard.

I think the public perception is that Senators are a bit of 'arms length' from the Prime Minister; whereas a member of his cabinet is much closer to home.

We've seen Harper protect his cabinet in the past (Del Mastro, MacKay, Clement, Raitt, Oda, etc, etc, etc.) and it seems to be a pattern that he will protect those in the front bench with a degree of veracity we haven't seen for the Senators.

I think this is because there is this perceived distance. A problem in his direct cabinet is a problem for him; whereas a problem in the Senate can be passed around to Senate leadership or some other scapegoat.