Harper’s rut

PAUL WELLS: Suddenly, things aren’t so clear and focused

Suddenly, things aren’t so clear and focused“In support of building a stronger Canada,” said the Harper government’s Speech from the Throne, “the government’s agenda will be clear and focused.”

Perhaps I should specify. That’s what they said—or gave unto Michaëlle Jean to say—in their first Throne Speech. Four years ago.

In the latest Throne Speech, earlier this month, Stephen Harper and his crack team of recalibrators had a bit more to say. They pledged to “launch a digital economy strategy.” To “extend support for…prototyping of new space-based technologies.” To “ensure that unnecessary regulation does not inhibit the growth of Canada’s uranium mining industry.”

Harper and his clear, focused team swore to “support a competitive livestock industry” and “defend supply management of dairy and poultry products” while “continuing trade negotiations with the European Union,” never mind that Canada’s continued defence of supply management will gut any trade deal of its substance if it does not simply torpedo negotiations altogether.

The government will “reintroduce legislation to protect Canadian families from unsafe food, drug and consumer products.” It will “respect the wishes of Canadians by reintroducing the consumer product safety legislation.” It will “reintroduce tough legislation to combat the criminal drug trade.” The government will do these things because it believes in them just as much as it did when it throttled the last session of Parliament and killed those reforms the first time.

The Harper government will “look to innovative charities and forward-thinking private-sector companies to partner on new approaches to many social challenges.” The name and the nature of the charities, the companies, and the challenges will have to wait.

The government will “establish a prime ministerial award for volunteerism,” “support legislation establishing Seniors’ Day,” hold “a national day of commemoration” for the last veteran of the First World War, “bring individuals, groups and businesses together to build community war memorials,” “continue to invest in world-class Canadian athletics,” “mark the quadricentenary of the settling of Cupids, Newfoundland and Labrador,” “engage millions of citizens and strengthen knowledge and pride in Canada by commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812,” “celebrate the 60th anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” and “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of our national anthem.”

In the interest of clarity and focus, the government withdrew that last idea 49 hours after the Governor General read it aloud. The other plans remain. Onward.

The government will “take steps to strengthen further Canada’s francophone identity.” It will support “the establishment of a National Monument to the Victims of Communism and it will support legislation to establish a national Holocaust memorial.” It will “continue to map our northern resources and waters.” It will “bolster its Action Plan on Clean Water.”

The Harper government will “advocate greater investment in maternal and child health in developing countries.” A day later, it announced it will cap Canada’s contribution to international development assistance. Everyone looks forward to learning which country will make the greater investment the Harper government will advocate.

“Nowhere,” the Throne Speech intones, “is a commitment to principled policy, backed by action, needed more than in addressing climate change.” There is no truth to the rumour that the PMO sought to shorten this sentence, in the interests of clarity and focus, to: “Nowhere is a commitment to principled policy, backed by action, needed.”

How shall we back our commitment to principled policy, here where it is needed more than anywhere, with action? The answer came in the following day’s budget: “Responsibility for conducting environmental assessments for energy projects will be delegated from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to the National Energy Board.” That’ll keep those pesky environmentalists away from the environment! Just as we will keep Canadian aid dollars away from aid, gender neutrality away from the anthem, and free trade away from our farmers. Upon these rocks of clarity and focus will we build our church.

It is easy to mock a government for having lots of priorities. There’s ample precedent. In 2003, Paul Martin said, “I want to lead a new government with a renewed sense of purpose, and a sharper focus and a clearer plan.” Months later, Martin was bringing down budgets stuffed like Christmas geese, with $175 million to “help renew Marine Atlantic’s fleet and shore facilities” and $50.5 million to “the Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated” and launching “a comprehensive review of [the government’s] current approach to financing First Nations infrastructure.”
Just kidding! No, the money for Marine Atlantic, the Montreal bridges, and the Aboriginal infrastructure review was all in this month’s clear, focused 2010 Stephen Harper budget, not in the sharper-focused, clearer-planning Martin budgets of yore. But it’s easy to get confused.

Harper prorogued Parliament in December because, he said, he needed a couple of months of focus and clarity to prepare Canada for the epochal challenges ahead. On many recent nights, a pedestrian passing the Langevin Block on Ottawa’s downtown Wellington Street would pass the Prime Minister’s parked and waiting motorcade as Harper stayed at the office late into the evening. Now more than at any time since he got this job, Harper carries the weight of his entire government on his shoulders. And it is grinding him into a rut.