OTTAWA — Parliament emerges Wednesday from extended winter hibernation with a throne speech outlining the Harper government’s agenda for weaning the country off its recession-driven spending binge and back onto the path of economic prosperity and fiscal probity.
Sight unseen, opposition parties are skeptical the document will offer any dramatically new direction that would justify Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s controversial decision to suspend Parliament, which was to have resumed Jan. 25.
They intend to use the belated return of Parliament to zero in on Harper’s supposed character defects: his alleged lust for unrestrained power and his contempt for democratic institutions.
But however heated the rhetoric, an electoral stalemate between the Conservatives and Liberals all but guarantees neither of the main parties will try to trigger an election. A survey conducted Feb. 18-28 by The Canadian Press Harris Decima suggests the two main parties are deadlocked at 31 per cent each.
The 6,000-plus word throne speech — expected to take Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean at least an hour to read — will reiterate plans to dispense some $19 billion this year as part of the second phase of the government’s economic action plan.
But a senior government official said it will make clear that the stimulus taps will be turned off entirely by March 31, 2011. That will likely come as a disappointment to some municipalities that had hoped for more time to complete infrastructure projects.
After that, the speech will outline an overall plan for reining in spending — possibly including scaling back MPs’ generous pension plan — with details to be fleshed out in Thursday’s federal budget.
It will assure Canadians that the government will not cut funding for health care, education or pensions.
Entitled A Strong Canada, a Strong Economy, Now and in the Future, the speech will also outline plans to “promote the jobs and industries of the future,” according to the official.
That’s expected to entail continued investments in infrastructure, education, training and research and maintenance of a low tax environment. It’s also expected to include policies aimed at reducing the regulatory burden, luring foreign investors, relaxing foreign ownership restrictions, recruiting foreign talent and enhancing Canada’s international competitiveness.
Beyond economic matters, the speech will outline the government’s continuing “tough on crime” agenda and some additional measures to safeguard national security, the official said.
It will also include measures to assert Canadian sovereignty in the North, protect the country’s “unparalleled natural beauty” and “recognize our aboriginal heritage.”
Pouncing on vague reports about the contents of the throne speech, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff mocked the government Tuesday for taking so long to finally realize the need for long-term investments in research, innovation and learning.
“Well, hello. After four years, better late than never,” he scoffed.
Despite Parliament’s resumption, both Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton intend to continue hammering away at Harper for extending the Christmas break by six weeks.
Layton is calling for an emergency debate on the prime minister’s power to prorogue Parliament whenever he sees fit and intends to introduce legislation to restrain that power.
“It’s the people’s House and the elected representatives of the people should determine when the doors open and close,” he said.
The Liberals intend to introduce their own motion to change procedural rules so that the prime minister would need the consent of the House of Commons to suspend Parliament in future.
“We want to have a political system . . . in which the prime minister has the authority to do his job but he doesn’t have the power to ride roughshod over Parliament and the will of the people,” said Ignatieff.
Liberal MP Derek Lee, meanwhile, is planning to challenge the government’s refusal to hand over uncensored documents related to the alleged torture of Afghan detainees.
At some point early in the new session, he intends to ask Commons Speaker Peter Milliken to find the government in general — and Defence Minister Peter MacKay and a senior justice department official in particular — in contempt of Parliament.