First reaction on the Throne Speech
It is hard to imagine the federal government falling on the basis of this Throne Speech. We’ll have to see what kind of chest-thumping this generates among the Opposition parties, but I do not think any of them wants an election, and my first pass at the text says Harper blinked. Plus since Newfoundland and Ontario just had elections with Saskatchewan gearing up, I pity the fool who would send us to the polls.
There is a lot that I find distasteful in this Throne Speech, but in minority fashion it is less egregious than I reckon Harper would be with a majority. The most controversial aspect is a suggestion that we could be in Afghanistan until 2011, but even that one is couched weakly:
In the coming session, members will be asked to vote on the future of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. … Canada should build on its accomplishments and shift to accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police so that the Afghan government can defend its own sovereignty. This will not be completed by February 2009, but our Government believes this objective should be achievable by 2011, the end of the period covered by the Afghanistan Compact.
The first part of the speech spends much time talking about Arctic sovereignty. We then get some fluff about strengthening our democratic institutions, but nothing to too dramatic there either. And then we get a generic call for more tax cuts without any details save for the next GST cut that we already knew about. No news there. I suppose we will have to wait for November’s Economic and Fiscal Update for details on the tax cuts, and this could serve as a pre-election mini-budget.
Later in the speech, it declares Canada’s Kyoto commitment dead, then states the new and improved targets:
Our Government will implement our national strategy to reduce Canadaâ€™s total greenhouse gas emissions 60 to 70 percent by 2050. There will be a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Our Government will bring forward the elements from Canadaâ€™s Clean Air Act, which had all-party consensus, for parliamentary consideration.
On the federalism file, here’s a study in contrasts:
Our Government believes that the constitutional jurisdiction of each order of government should be respected. To this end, guided by our federalism of openness, our Government will introduce legislation to place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power for new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. This legislation will allow provinces and territories to opt out with reasonable compensation if they offer compatible programs.
Our Government will also pursue the federal governmentâ€™s rightful leadership in strengthening Canadaâ€™s economic union. Despite the globalization of markets, Canada still has a long way to go to establish free trade among our provinces. It is often harder to move goods and services across provincial boundaries than across our international borders. This hurts our competitive position but, more importantly, it is just not the way a country should work. Our Government will consider how to use the federal trade and commerce power to make our economic union work better for Canadians.
In the first instance, the government appeals to respecting provincial jurisdiction as a justification for restricting federal spending on social programs. This is pretty far from the firey, firewall rhetoric we used to get from Harper when he headed the National Citizens Coalition, and it is hard to read between the lines exactly what they mean. We will have to wait for the legislation.
In the second paragraph, based on the bogus claim about trade barriers â€“ again, not a single example provided â€“ provincial jurisdiction to meet local needs through public interest regulation is challenged. The Tories’ principles seem less about respecting federal and provincial jurisdiction and more about whatever measure will act to further reduce the size of government.
The line that really gets me is in the second paragraph, repeated so often it is conventional wisdom, that it is harder to trade among Canadian provinces than across the border with the US. Does anyone who knows anything about trade and investment really believe this to be true? A month ago, when I crossed the border I had to wait an hour in a line-up, something that imposed a real economic cost to me â€“ and that costs billions of dollars a year when extrapolated to the export sector as a whole. I also had to change currency, which also costs me in transaction fees (and exchange rate risk with a rising loonie). But if I go to Alberta, I need not cross any border inspection station and can use my Canadian dollars.
I actually agree with the last sentence that the feds should use their powers to deal with any real interprovincial trade issues. But this is not going to be long exercise since there are essentially no barriers to real trade. The thorny part will be if the feds argue that differences in provincial regulations amount to trade barriers. These differences may pose some additional costs to business but are not barriers per se. In some cases, a high federal standard would make sense; in others, differences among the provinces are there for a reason (for example, stricter trucking regulations in BC due to its mountainous terrain). The worst outcome would be to impose some form of mutual recognition, where the lowest common denominator wins.