'Are you with us?' Tories ask as throne speech signals drive to 2015 election

OTTAWA – MPs last seen in the parliamentary precinct at the end of June return to work Wednesday following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extension of their summer recess past the Thanksgiving weekend.

The first order of business for belatedly returning Conservatives: the 2013-14 course syllabus.

Harper delayed the scheduled return of Parliament by a full month in order to let a boiling Senate expense scandal cool.

Now, through the office of Gov. Gen. David Johnston, the prime minister will lay out the broad strokes of his governing priorities from a document whose major themes have been widely leaked.

Economic stability, law and order and Canadian historical celebrations will be familiar touchstones for anyone who’s looked at the previous six Conservative throne speeches since Harper came to office in 2006.

Expect fresher material catering to consumers, First Nations training and rail safety, among other themes, as a Conservative government now almost eight years in power and at the midpoint of its first majority mandate seeks the elusive and often over-hyped “reset” button.

A July cabinet shuffle, the throne speech and a Conservative party policy convention in Calgary — now scheduled for the end of October — are supposed to provide a winning, mid-mandate makeover trifecta, according to Ottawa lore.

But the summer cabinet moves have been all but forgotten even within the press gallery bubble; Wednesday’s throne speech will probably best be remembered for its unfortunate Senate chamber backdrop — ground zero for the ethics and spending scandal that has rocked the Harper government.

The nature of throne speeches from long-entrenched governments makes it unlikely Wednesday’s version will be a blockbuster.

“There’s always a bit of a paradox between continuity and innovation,” Geoff Norquay, a longtime Conservative strategist and now a principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said in an interview.

“On the one hand, any government wants to bridge between the strongest elements of their brand and what they’ve accomplished to bolster that brand, and on the other hand, identify the new departures and the innovations that build on that brand to the future.”

The brand-conscious Conservatives have already rolled out a fresh round of those “Economic Action Plan” television ads that have blanketed the airwaves since early 2009, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $113 million to date.

And lest anyone confuse the speech from the throne with some overarching national blueprint divorced from partisan politicking, the Conservative party itself was quick to shred that notion Tuesday.

“We’re counting on your support for tomorrow’s throne speech. Are you with us?” said a tweet from the Conservative party, repeated by the prime minister’s Twitter account.

“Tell the Prime Minister you’ve got his back by adding your name,” Fred DeLorey, the Conservative party’s director of political operations, said in an email blast to supporters that linked to a throne-speech-themed Conservative web page.

The page is emblazoned with what appears to be the speech’s title, “Seizing Canada’s Moment, Security and Prosperity in an Uncertain World,” and includes a female voiceover telling visitors “we’re re-dedicating ourselves to a bold and innovative agenda.”

With its well-telegraphed nod to pocketbook consumer issues — such as cell phone roaming fees and cable television charges — the speech from the throne will provide the informal kick-off to the 2015 federal election campaign.

The last time Harper addressed a throne speech from the opposition benches, in 2004, he reminded the Liberal government of the day to “bear in mind that people express their wishes as much through the Opposition as through the government.”

Judging by the Conservatives’ newfound interest in populist consumer measures, Harper continues banking on the power of wedge issues to drive a spike through NDP and Liberal support.

— with files from Jennifer Ditchburn

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