Half-baked and ill-defined

No government gets to reinvent itself at the mid-point of a third mandate. The ship of state does not turn on a dime.

No government gets to reinvent itself at the mid-point of a third mandate. The ship of state does not turn on a dime.

But the subtext of Stephen Harper’s seventh throne speech is that this government — notwithstanding its current slump in the polls — feels little need for a course correction.

Stripped of all of its lofty rhetoric — and at more than 7,000 words there was no lack of it — the so-called mid-mandate reset of the Conservative government amounts to a handful of sometimes half-baked and always ill-defined promises that could have been more comprehensively covered by a few ministerial statements.

The core agenda will be familiar to anyone who has kept up with Conservative policy over the past two years or who has read previous instalments of the same speech.

On that basis, voters who still like the government will likely find enough in Stephen Harper’s seventh throne speech to continue to support the ruling party.

But polls suggest that there are not enough of those — as things stand today — to ensure the re-election of the Conservatives to power, let alone with another majority.

Wednesday’s speech may fall short of bridging that gap.

Missing from the mix is at least one central policy idea that would both give the government renewed momentum and distinguish it positively from the opposition.

It may be that there are voters out there who so crave a government that will get them a better deal on credit card borrowing or cable choices or roaming fees as to make it their ballot-box issue. That all depends on the fine print of the measures.

But those voters would be offered the same contract with the NDP. The party has been promoting some of the same measures for years — often in the face of Conservative opposition.

Indeed, with big business out of the political financing picture, all federal parties, including the Liberals, are falling over themselves to cater to the voters who pay their way.

The throne speech restates the Conservative case that Canada’s wealth rests in no small part on its capacity to market its energy resources — and that pipelines should be built, expanded, reversed or whatever it takes to get landlocked Western Canada oil and gas to the country’s coasts.

But on this the government does not have a fundamental difference with the NDP or the Liberals.

While the Conservatives seem to like all pipelines, the main opposition parties like some better than others.

They are more inclined to be guided by environmental concerns in their choices than the current government.

Even voters who are sold on the merits of opening new markets for Canada’s energy output might consider that a better mix.

Then there is free trade. A deal with the European Union has been agreed to in principle.

That is a major development but it not necessarily a wedge issue, or at least not in the way that the FTA and NAFTA were in the past.

Those trade agreements divided the federal parties, with the Liberals and the NDP fighting the Tories over them.

But in this instance, the Liberals would essentially stick to the same course as the Conservatives and the New Democrats have warmed up to free trade over the past few years.

And so the Conservatives are down to seeking their electoral salvation in the policy margins — an area where it is always easier to please the party base than to attract or hang on to broad support.

And so there will be yet more law-and-order measures. (At this rate all that will be left in the judicial pantry when this mandate ends will be the restoration of the death penalty!) And Parliament will be put to work on gimmicks such as the kind of balanced-budget legislation that proved to be meaningless when the recent economic crisis struck.

When they craft a throne speech, governments usually hope for a bit of a bang.

This one will amount to little more than a blip.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.