Every morning in Ottawa, thousands of public servants crowd into a new light-rail system that may or may not work, headed to jobs for which they may or may not be correctly paid.
Between a shaky start for light rail this fall and the still-not-fixed Phoenix payroll debacle, the nation’s capital isn’t exactly a model right now for big, ambitious government projects.
Fortunately for the beleaguered civil servants toiling in the capital, Parliament won’t be in a big, bold mood when it convenes this week for the first time since the October election. Justin Trudeau’s government, reduced to a minority in October, is expected to cloak its Speech from the Throne in talk of caution, collaboration and incremental change.
Four years ago, this was a Liberal government that wanted to be graded for how hard it was trying to be a force for good in citizens’ lives. In 2019, though, Trudeau’s team is more modestly hoping for “plays well with others” on its political report card.
Throne speeches originate in party platforms. So the 85-page “Forward” document, released at the end of September by the Liberals in the middle of the election campaign, has been serving as the first draft for what Governor-General Julie Payette will be reading in the Senate on Thursday afternoon.
The actual speech, we’re told, will be a lot shorter — in length and details. Expect some 2,000 or so words, with deliberately vague language about climate change, affordability and citizens’ hopes for “safety” in their lives, which means everything from gun control to pledges on pharmacare.
But everything will be couched in the conditional tense — Trudeau’s government is only moving “forward” with the help of others, if the platform is any guide.
Even pharmacare, the closest thing we have in 2019 to a big, bold plan for government, will rely on buy-in from the provinces. There’s no guarantee of that either — on Monday, when the premiers met in Toronto, many were talking about opting out, not buying in. Quebec Premier François Legault, in classic Quebec posture, said his province would be looking for opting out with compensation — a particularly Canadian solution to many federal-provincial impasses; a gift card rather than an inappropriate gift, if you will.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said provinces already have their hands full with managing the health system as it now stands.
“If you can’t get that right, don’t start with another program,” Pallister said, in a not-so-subtle warning to Ottawa on pharmacare.
Perhaps Pallister has ridden the LRT in Ottawa, or is acquainted with someone whose public-servant pay has been “Phoenixed” (yes, that is a word now) over the past few years.
Four years ago and for most of the years of its first term, the Trudeau government couldn’t stop telling everyone what it was — gender-balanced, inclusive, diverse, open, tolerant and so on.
The identity proclamations became grating, even to Liberals. During the election, candidates kept being asked at the doorstep what the Liberals had done, not who they were. Put in grammatical terms, Canadians are looking for more verbs and fewer adjectives from their government. More action, less identification.
If the Trudeau government was listening to that particular lesson from the election campaign, we should also expect the Speech from the Throne to display that grammatical correction. Don’t tell us who you are, tell us what you’re doing.
The real details of the government’s action plans for the weeks and months ahead will come in the mandate letters to new ministers, which are being finalized this week and likely to be released within “days” of Parliament starting on Thursday, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Only one item besides the Speech from the Throne is on the agenda for this month before Parliament rises for the holidays: the “middle-class tax cut” promised by the Liberals, which increases the amount that Canadians are allowed to earn before taxes kick in. It’s roughly $12,000 a year now, but will rise to $15,000 — a measure that will probably be reasonably non-controversial in the new minority Parliament.
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Non-controversial seems to be the goal for this last month of a very politically contentious year. On Monday, Canada’s premiers managed to present themselves as united by agreeing not to talk about things that divided them. On Thursday, the new Liberal government will be trying to pull off the same feat.
For now, at least, all things big, bold and ambitious are definitely not in fashion in federal politics, even or especially among the transit-fatigued, payroll-challenged people who work closest to Parliament Hill.