Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomes Gov. Gen. David Johnston as he arrives to deliver the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill, Wednesday Oct. 16, 2013. Justin Tang/Canadian Press
The federal government says it will bring in a law forcing future governments to have balanced budgets during "normal economic times," freeze its operating budget and reform the way the government manages spending, Gov. Gen. David Johnston said in the throne speech Wednesday.
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The speech, which lays out the government's agenda for the next session of Parliament, also promises to open up Canada's liquor laws so that Canadians can take beer and spirits across provincial boundaries. A law, proposed by Conservative MP Dan Albas, that opened provincial trade in wine was wildly popular across the country.
In practice, however, many provinces haven't yet amended their own laws so people can take advantage of the change. A similar exemption for beer and spirits would face the same hurdle.
The government also says it will "close loopholes that allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment," a measure that is sure to be controversial. The Conservatives continue to oppose Vancouver's In-Site clinic, despite a wealth of scientific research showing it's effective in reducing harm.
There was only a brief mention of the Senate, the chamber in which the speech is made: The status quo "is unacceptable" and "must be reformed or … vanish." The Supreme Court will hear arguments in November about what the federal government can do to reform the Senate without reopening the Constitution.
New promises include:
- Ending "pay-to-pay" policies that force people to pay for paper bills rather than electronic.
- Expanding no-cost banking services and working with the provinces and territories to "crack down" on payday lenders, which charge massive interest rates for short-term loans.
- An updated strategy for science, innovation and technology.
There's also a vague promise to launch "a comprehensive new plan to assist Canadian businesses as they expand abroad."
Budget proposal 'rich'
Both opposition leaders took aim at Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the proposal to ban budget deficits after the current government didn't avoid it.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said there was "a great lack of credibility" for the Conservatives. The NDP said 10 of the promises in the throne speech came from their own proposals
A rumoured air passengers bill of rights isn't mentioned in the speech, and there is nothing specific for the community of Lac-Mégantic, the site of a massive rail disaster, despite the presence of the town's mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, he noted. She was seated next to Laureen Harper, the prime minister's wife.
There is, however, a measure to require shippers and railways to carry additional insurance.
Mulcair also took aim at the idea the Conservatives would bring in a law to force balanced budgets, saying they themselves ran up the deficit to historic heights before slashing budgets.
"The Conservatives eviscerated the government's ability to provide services," he said.
Trudeau said the idea is a reasonable proposal, but he finds it "highly rich that the government that has not managed to balance its books for so many of its budget cycles [is] proposing balanced budget legislation."
The agenda set out by the Conservatives doesn't address the challenges of middle-class Canadians, Trudeau said.
"We see a government that is reacting in a way [that is] focused on their own electoral opportunities rather than on meeting the real needs that middle-class Canadians have expressed to me across the summer," he said.
Promise to end Canada-U.S. price gap
The government promises in the speech to "take further action to end geographic price discrimination against Canadians," referring to the price gap between the U.S. and Canada. It's not clear what action that would be however, with a range of factors affecting those costs — including the cost of transporting goods further for a smaller population base and the cost of paying Canadian minimum wages.
The government also says it will "empower consumers" by forcing disclosure of the cost of debit and credit payment methods. There's no mention of regulating the fees charged to vendors for premium credit cards, a battle the Competition Bureau tried fighting before a federal tribunal ruled it was up to the government to act.
Changes in the telecommunications sector, which Industry Minister James Moore had announced ahead of Wednesday's speech, made their appearance in the text: "steps" to reduce cell phone roaming costs within Canada, unbundling TV channels and enhanced high-speed broadband for rural Canadians. There was no word on a rumoured possible air travellers' bill of rights, however, to handle passengers who are bumped from flights due to overbooking.
And while the Conservatives have already introduced new nutritional labelling, they're promising to consult "Canadian parents" to improve it.
Further on the health file, the government says it will make sure drug labels are written in plain language and require adverse drug reactions to be reported.
'More effective' First Nations education
With the federal government poised to introduce a controversial First Nations education reform bill this fall, the throne speech said the Conservatives "will continue working with First Nations to develop stronger, more effective, and more accountable on-reserve education systems."
While there was no mention of calling a national public inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women, the federal government said it "will renew its efforts" to address the issue. Aboriginal leaders, supported by all the premiers, are calling for an inquiry.
On Tuesday, James Anaya, the UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people urged the Harper government not to "rush" the tabling of its education reform but rather to "reinitiate" discussions with aboriginal leaders. Anaya also called on the government to launch a "comprehensive and nationwide" inquiry into aboriginal women.
The throne speech reiterated environmental commitments already made, including polluter-pay legislation and putting in place recommendations by a tanker safety panel.
The government also used the speech to reiterate a promise to "reduce emissions from the oil and gas sectors" — legislation the government has been promising since 2006. The throne speech, however, doesn't promise binding regulations.
And it covered justice initiatives that have already been announced:
- Cyberbullying legislation that prevents non-consensual distribution of "intimate images."
- Legislation to prevent child sexual predators from receiving a single sentence for multiple crimes.
- Legislation to prevent the most dangerous criminals from ever being released from prison.
It promises a law to punish anyone who harms police dogs, calling it Quanto's law, and asserts the government will vigorously defend Canada's prostitution laws.
Other measures, previously announced but reiterated in the throne speech:
- A Canada Job Grant, which would use funding currently provided to the provinces and which many provinces oppose.
- $70 billion over 10 years for infrastructure funding for cities, including subways for Toronto and Montreal's Champlain Bridge.
- An optional securities regulator, to which British Columbia and Ontario have already pledged support.
- Job training for aboriginal Canadians.
- Making adoption more affordable.
- A law to ensure for every federal regulation added, one must be removed.
As expected, the speech announced honourary citizenship for Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban over her fight for girls in Pakistan to go to school.
It also confirmed that Canada and the European Union have reached a tentative trade deal that will provide greater access to European cheese in Canada, an issue that is contentious because of Canada's protected dairy industry. Harper will leave for Brussels Thursday, likely missing the first question period since mid-June.
NDP maintains pressure over Senate scandal
None of the Conservative-appointed senators — Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin — who are all under investigation by the RCMP over their expense claims, were in the Senate chamber for the speech, although Wallin was spotted there before it began.
All have left the Conservative caucus since the scandal began.
The Official Opposition is doing what it can to keep the focus on the Senate expenses scandal, including the payment by Harper's then-chief of staff to cover Duffy's wrongly claimed expenses.
The NDP wanted to present a point of privilege in the House following the speech to ask Speaker Andrew Scheer to find Harper misled the Commons when he said no one in his office knew his chief of staff paid Duffy's illegitimately claimed expenses.
But MPs weren't able to agree on other motions and they ran out of time. They'll return to the point of privilege Thursday at 10 a.m. ET.
Points of privilege take precedence over all other business.
"Last spring, Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons and, in the most formal setting possible, told Canadians that no one else in his office was aware of what had gone on between [then-chief of staff] Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy," Mulcair said. "In very official documents the RCMP, over the summer, made it quite clear that that was not true."
"You don't get away with just saying one thing that's the opposite of the truth in the House of Commons and expect to have no consequences. There are legal, technical, procedural and honour consequences here in the House of Commons for Stephen Harper for having done that and we're calling him to account," he added.
An RCMP affidavit filed in court in July listed three other PMO officials, plus Senator Irving Gerstein, who Wright allegedly said also knew about his agreement with Duffy.
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