Conservative throne speech marks unofficial start of race to 2015 election

OTTAWA – The Harper Conservatives will hit the gas pedal this week in the race toward the next election in 2015.

But the opposition parties are vowing to push down hard on the brakes in reminding Canadians about what they call the government’s lapse in ethics in the Senate.

In a speech from the throne Wednesday, the Tories will be driving ahead with their jobs and tough-on-crime agendas while steering slightly to the left to pick up passengers on the social and consumer issues track.

The speech is expected to focus on bedrock Conservative issues — creating jobs and rebuilding the economy — with particular themes targeted at creating employment opportunities and providing job training for aboriginals in the resource sector.

But several consumer-friendly measures will also be incorporated into the blueprint document, designed to counter proposals expected from the Opposition New Democrats and Liberals.

Those measures are also aimed at turning the attention of voters away from the Senate spending controversy that has seen several Conservative appointees and one Liberal taken to task over their travel and living expenses.

The sales pitch will include measures directed at alleviating consumer irritants, such as a plan to force cable and satellite TV providers to adopt a pick-and-pay price model, in conjunction with the bundled channel payment plans they currently offer.

The Tories also hope voters will appreciate moves to create an airline passenger bill of rights, designed to compensate people who are inconvenienced when air carriers overbook flights.

There will also likely be references to increasing competition in the wireless sector and to capping domestic cellphone roaming fees.

“We think roaming fees have been a long standing concern for not only consumers but for competition within the telecom sector,” Industry Minister James Moore said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

But if the government is serious about helping consumers, it will reduce the price gap between goods sold in Canada and the United States by further lowering tariffs and cutting costs for retailers by placing a cap on credit card fees charged to business, says the Retail Council of Canada.

“What we’re very much eagerly awaiting is a recognition that addressing each one of those areas will result in benefits to Canadian consumers, and a signal from the government that they’re continuing to explore opportunities to reduce those costs,” said council senior vice president David Wilkes.

However, the credit card fee issue is not expected to make its way into the throne speech, said Moore.

The federal Competition Tribunal struck down a complaint against Visa and Mastercard in July over the processing fees they charge businesses for using their cards, and a government finance committee has been grappling with the issue ever since.

The Conservatives already have a website and Twitter app set up to bring Canadians highlights from the throne speech under the banner “Seizing Canada’s Moment – Security and Prosperity in an Uncertain World.”

The speech, opening the delayed second session of Canada’s 41st Parliament, will be read by Gov. Gen. David Johnston in the Senate — the very chamber at the centre of an expense scandal that has dogged the Conservatives since the last session.

And no matter its content, the Opposition is sure to take advantage of the optics.

“I don’t know what you would write down in words that the governor general is meant to relay to Canadians that will take attention away from the harsh realities (of the Senate scandal),” says NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen.

Still, the government is not expected to say much about Senate reform, waiting instead to hear back from the Supreme Court of Canada about a reference that asks whether the red chamber can be reformed, or even abolished.

The throne speech will include a handful of new promises to further crack down on crime.

But don’t expect any big new initiatives that would risk spending lots of money or that cannot be completed in time for the election, say insiders.

Public safety and protecting the environment will likely also go hand-in-hand in segments of the speech that touch on the Lac-Megantic derailment disaster and recent oil pipeline leaks.

But even that will be a balancing act as the Harper Conservatives hope to convince Canadians that getting oil and other commodities to market is essential to creating jobs and economic wealth.

The Tories, says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, cannot be trusted to do any of the things they’ll promise in the speech.

“You asked for open and honest government,” Trudeau says in a video message posted on the party’s website.

“Instead, you’re getting secrecy, distrust and scandal.”

Trudeau accuses the Conservatives of giving Canadians “partisan games and gimmicks” rather than real action on jobs and security.

Still, the Conservatives are expected to make further reference to veterans, and the need to better incorporate them into the workforce and match their skills to jobs.

First Nations could also hear a more conciliatory tone on resource development. The Conservatives were told over the summer that their omnibus budget bills, C38 and C45, which sparked the Idle-No-More movement, have caused more harm than good, and that they need to signal a change in approach to win people over.

The Tories are expected to signal a renewed commitment to passing legislation on First Nations education in time for fall 2014.

The speech will also likely make some reference to preparations for the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, among other notable historical milestones.

Security may be a little tighter for this throne speech. The last time Gov. Gen. Johnston read from the Harper Conservatives’ blueprint for governing, in June 2011, a Senate page disrupted the speech by holding up a “Stop Harper” sign in the middle of the proceedings.

Brigette DePape of Manitoba was immediately removed from the Senate chamber and fired from her job, but later became an icon for critics of the Conservatives.

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