Throne speech: Seize Canada’s moment, and suffocate it

A breathtaking spout of free-associating bloviation

What a breathtaking spout of free-associating bloviation. What an epic ramble.

In April, 2006, after the Harper Conservatives first formed a government, they made a great show of delivering one of the shortest Throne Speeches in modern times: 2,445 words, the equivalent of a mere three Jeffrey Simpson columns. Jean Chrétien used to hand down much longer speeches — 3,660 words in February, 1996. Paul Martin’s were even longer: 6,308 words in February 2004, 4,668 in October of the same year.

Remember Paul Martin? Mister 50 Priorities? Mister All Things to All Canadians? This Throne Speech is 7,240 words, 900 words longer than Paul Martin’s longest, almost three times the length of Harper’s first.

“This is Canada’s moment,” David Johnston read obediently. “Together we will seize it.” Why? “We are on the cusp of a moment that is uniquely Canada’s.” So? “Just as our founders dared, so too must we.” It’s the least we can do. After all, our founders did their daring way back before Canada’s moment, on the cusp of moments that were Swiss or Nigerian or Japanese; now here comes our unique moment and we’re not supposed to dare? That’s not how it works in Stephen Harper’s Canada, Mister. For instance, we will dare to write and deliver really long throne speeches. Our founders would be impressed.

But there’s more than just words in here! There’s things to do. In an excellent season for Canadian literature, the Prime Minister will pay personal tribute to Stephen Leacock by riding madly off in all directions.

He will introduce balanced-budget legislation as reliable and airtight as his fixed-election legislation. He will sell off federal assets, if he feels like it. He will encourage foreign investment, if he likes it. He will, by state fiat, find the Franklin Expedition. He’ll release a new science strategy. He’ll “crack down on predatory payday lenders,” something he already did once this year when he fired Nigel Wright. He’ll implement the Leslie Report on moving military resources from National Defence Headquarters to someplace more useful — not because the report’s ideas were self-evidently useful, but because Andrew Leslie is now in the business of giving ideas to Justin Trudeau. He’ll make Malala a Canadian citizen. He will celebrate the hell out of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Somewhere in there, at about the point where Tom Hanks would be starting to feel mighty thirsty if this had been a screening of Captain Phillips, there are a few paragraphs about consumer rights. Far less than there is about the 150th birthday celebrations. And far, far less than there is about continuing to crack down on criminals, people who look like criminals, people who might be criminals, and people who might know where there are some criminals. But the PMO assiduously leaked these table scraps about consumer protections for days before the big read, and everyone played the consumer stuff up big in the pre-throne-speech stories, and the CBC spent two hours talking nonstop about the “consumer agenda” after the speech as though there had actually been one in it. The great thing about leaking news is that you can create news where there is none, durably, long after your ruse should have been noticed. No wonder it’s so addictive.

So what’s going on here? Two things, I think. First, Harper seems to have concluded that part of his trouble in the spring, with the Duffy and the cheque and the Senate thing and the Rathgeber and the Warawa and the Woodworth and the this and the that, was that he had left rather too many idle hands in his caucus. MPs popping up six times a day with Really! Great! Ideas! about how to redefine abortion. Vast arid wastelands on the news where a federal government should be, and nothing to fill it with but Bob Fife’s latest revelation or the latest updates from Planet Robocall. As one Hill wag pointed out at the time:

A government is like a shark. If it stops swimming, it drowns. Harper has lasted 11 years as a party leader for two reasons: He was never alone and he had a plan…. And now? He is increasingly alone and isolated.

He has plainly decided to unleash every pet project he can deem as helpful or at least nearly harmless, the better to fill both the news agenda and some of the empty longing in the pits of his MPs’ stomachs.

But there’s something else going on here too. As the same wiseacre pundit pointed out a little earlier this spring:

Canadians have little intuitive grasp of decimal places. A government does not get 1,000 times more credit for spending $1 billion on something than it does for spending $1 million. In fact, it does not get twice as much credit. As long as the government notices a problem and nods at it, it wins approval from voters who care about that problem. So not long after his man Jim Flaherty started delivering budgets, a Harper era of small and essentially symbolic investment began.

The same notion helps explain almost all the measures in this throne speech. There’s everything Harper needs here to ensure Andrew Coyne writes 47 columns lamenting the death of conservatism and assuring Canadians we have been teleported to Bucharest in 1974.

But nothing here looks like a new federal program with a new secretariat, a durable entitlement claimed by a large part of the population, or a major new appropriation of public life by the federal state. It all benefits, in Harper’s eyes, from the unequal perception of scale I described in the quote just above.

Meanwhile, big long-term rules and plans continue to lock in the progressive constraining of the Canadian federal government. A freeze on operating spending will continue; as the first Parliamentary Budget Officer pointed out, that puts a continuous pressure on the feds to keep cutting spending in affected departments. There will be “further targeted reductions to internal government spending” on top, apparently, of the spending freeze. And there are four paragraphs on curtailing public-service pay and benefits — as significant a component of the speech as the so-called consumers’ agenda.

If you cut a billion and spend a few million on ten different things, you can create an activist impression quite at odds with the government-limiting trend. This is what Stephen Harper came to Ottawa to do. Canada’s moment, he is sure, is here because he is in charge. He will stretch the moment out as long as he possibly can.