Speech from the Throne

Speech from the Throne

Speech from the Throne

Governor-General Julie Payette today read the Speech from the Throne to start Canada’s 43rd Parliament.

While Throne Speeches are usually long on directions and short on details, today’s speech was quite specific, laying out many of the commitments the Liberals made in the recent election.  At the same time the government was at pains to assure Canadians that it has heard the messages of the campaign and is sensitive to the regional divisions in the country. In fact, that speech was conciliatory in part, acknowledging the government will address several of the issues proposed by opposition parties, such as sterner measures to combat money-laundering and more generous benefits to help parents raising children, in addition to its ambitious climate agenda.

Main priorities

National unity

After a bruising election that exposed a number of fault lines in the Canadian federation and reduced the governing Liberals to a minority, the speech opened with a “call for unity in the pursuit of common goals and aspirations.” There was also a clear acknowledgement of the regional concerns expressed during the campaign: “…regional needs and differences really matter. Today’s regional economic concerns are both justified and important.”  The government promised to address these challenges through “dialogue and cooperation.”

Climate change

Noting that a “clear majority of Canadians voted for ambitious climate action now,” the government committed to “set a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050,” which was a key election promise, and will continue to “lead in ensuring a price on carbon everywhere in this country.”

The speech also promised action to make energy efficient homes more affordable, ease access to zero-emission vehicles, improve access to clean, affordable power, support private sector clean technology companies and provide help for people displaced by climate-related disasters.

In an additional bow to western alienation, the government promised to “work just as hard to get Canadian resources to new markets and offer unwavering support to the hardworking women and men in Canada’s natural resources sectors many of whom have faced tough times recently.”  The reference to new market access was a clear reference to the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which has faced long delays in obtaining federal approvals.

Strengthening the middle class

Today’s speech echoes many of the Liberals’ affordability promises in the recent election campaign: giving pride of place to the “middle class tax cut” which will be the government’s first priority.  Other promises in the speech include “continued crucial investments in affordable housing” and to “make before and after school care more accessible and affordable.”

Echoing other key campaign promises the government “will cut the cost of cell and wireless services by 25 percent” and provide greater assistance to students “be they new graduates struggling with loan repayment, or be they heading back to school mid-career to learn new skills.”  In addition to moving forward with the new NAFTA, the government pledges to “ensure that those in the supply management sectors will be fully and fairly compensated.”

Indigenous reconciliation

Two Throne Speech commitments stand out—a promise to “co-develop and introduce legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the first year of the new mandate,” and a promise to “ensure that Indigenous people who were harmed under the discriminatory child welfare system are compensated in a way that is both fair and timely.” Otherwise, the government commits to continue the work started in its first term to lift boil water advisories in Indigenous communities, improve mental health services, and “ensure the government is living up to the spirit and intent of treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements made with Indigenous Peoples.”

Health and safety

In an acknowledgement of widespread concern about gun crime, the speech commits the government to ban military-style assault rifles; they will also “take greater steps to address gender-based violence.”  The government also pledges to help Canadians access primary care family doctors, introduce mental health standards in the workplace and take further action on opioid addiction.

On pharmacare, the commitment remains as general as it was in the election campaign: “The government will take steps to introduce and implement national pharmacare so that Canadians have the drug coverage they need.”

Analysis

In today’s speech, economic policy took a decided back seat to the environment, Indigenous issues and family affordability measures and presented little in the way of a comprehensive economic vision. In contrast to the government’s first term, the speech made only a passing reference to innovation and science.  Earlier in the day, the Minister of Finance indicated that he may present the traditional fall economic update in the coming days.

There are several elements of the speech that can be counted on to spark controversy when they emerge in detailed legislative or program terms:

  • Pharmacare: The speech provided no details on how the government plans to proceed on this file, nor the expected timing for action. At the recent Council of the Federation meeting in Toronto, the provincial and territorial premiers were distinctly cool to the prospect of another federally-mandated program that will inevitably cost them money. Several premiers said that now may not be the right time for a national pharmacare program, given the current challenges of hospital overcrowding and growing wait times. Action on pharmacare is a top priority for the NDP, and they will not be happy with the government’s uncertainty on timing.
  • Net-zero emissions by 2050: When it is ultimately fleshed out, the government’s commitment for this new target is bound to create debate with the provinces and territories, especially those who have already rejected carbon pricing.
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: The promise to adopt this declaration as a part of Canadian law will be controversial. Given the difficulties the federal and industrial sectors have had working through the “duty to consult” requirements of the Constitution and the courts, there will be concerns about the potential unintended and unanticipated impacts of this legislation on future resource development.
  • Indigenous victims of child welfare underfunding: The government has been criticized for litigating the Canadian Human Rights decision requiring it to pay billions of dollars in compensation to victims of federal underfunding of child welfare services. The government will face additional challenges in explaining itself on this issue.
  • Fiscal Stabilization: The words of support for the resource sector and the people who work in it will be understood in Alberta and Saskatchewan as a positive federal response to calls to improve the federal Fiscal Stabilization program which provides support for resource-producing provinces in times of major economic downturn.

Watch for upcoming votes

Every new government must establish that it has the “confidence” of the House Commons. Generally, there are several days of debate on the Throne Speech before votes are taken that establish confidence.

This year, the government is facing a non-negotiable deadline of December 10, the date on which the House of Commons must sign off on the supplementary estimates (government spending authorization), which were tabled before the election. Being a money issue, this is automatically a confidence vote and will need to take place before the debate on the Throne Speech is finished.

Therefore, expect a vote on the supplementary estimates early next week followed by the votes on the Throne Speech, the first of which may be held next week, with the rest being carried over until January 27, when the House will return from its holiday break.