Robyn Benson, PSAC

Speech from the Throne

Throne speech.jpg

Like a government Budget, a Throne Speech is always stuffed with three things. First, visionary rhetoric—not to be confused with actual vision. Second, nuggets of good stuff for various constituencies that need to be brought, or kept, on-side. And finally there are cryptic hints and signals of forthcoming action—left to the pundits, and others, to interpret until actual legislation is introduced later in the session.

This Throne Speech had a boastful, even vainglorious feel about it, but also, as conservative columnist John Ivison put it later, more than a whiff of desperation. It was a scattershot speech, by and large unfocused, the agenda of a government galloping off madly in all directions.

But one thing attracted a very clear focus indeed: the federal Public Service. The tried-and-true public worker-bashing that has served politicians well ever since I can remember was very much in evidence.

Here it was done skillfully, by implication rather than direct accusation. A “competent and committed public service” is wanted: suggesting that our members and other federal public workers are neither. Pay and benefits “will be reasonable, responsible, and in the public interest”—meaning that they are not presently.

Disability and sick-day entitlements are to be “reformed,” to get employees “back to work as soon as possible.” Once again, the implication is plain: public workers are abusing the system, and need to be reined in. This is reinforced by the promise to “increase performance accountability in the Public Service to provide better service to Canadians, at a reduced cost.” This in the wake of thousands of cuts—people who were delivering that service, but are no longer around to do so.

Finally, without warning, the government is going to amend the Public Service Labour Relations Act—it appears unilaterally. We have no idea what changes are intended. To say that this will damage already frayed labour-management relations in the federal Public Service would be putting it mildly. Let’s have a look at those changes, and have the opportunity for meaningful dialogue between Treasury Board and the federal public service unions. That’s how civil folks behave, and how civil society should work. It’s also how positive relations are established and maintained.

. . . . . . . . . .

I read the Throne Speech as a union leader, but I also reacted as a Canadian citizen. It doesn’t take a union activist to find the endless self-back-patting throughout the Throne Speech a tad obsessive. The Harper government—in case you haven’t already received the message countless times on your nickel—boasts of its management of the economy and its “decisive and pragmatic leadership.” But economies are bigger than governments; they have a life of their own. It’s common for politicians to claim credit for the good times, and for their country getting off lightly when the world economy dips, but there is something particularly overblown about the Harper government’s claims in this respect. And if a million new jobs have really been created since the depths of the recession, as the Throne Speech asserts, that needs to be balanced against the rising tide of precarious, go-nowhere employment. Things are far from rosy out there in the real world.

The Conservatives are presently at 26.1% in the polls. And so, unsurprisingly, they suddenly want to be all things to all people—at least on the surface. The speech is packed with measures aimed at a diverse number of constituencies, including progressive ones. Discrimination against workers on the basis of genetic testing will be outlawed, for example. Many will welcome the government’s pledge to protect the rights of Canadians abroad, especially after its shameful treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazkik and others. There will be much support for awarding the heroic Malala Yousafzai honorary Canadian citizenship. A promise of economic partnership with the Inuit has already been warmly greeted by the top Inuit leadership. Youth unemployment will be tackled. Money will go into all sorts of training and job schemes. $70 billion over the next decade will go towards building Canadian infrastructure.

But let’s take a closer look. Somewhere in the speech we are urged to consider actions, not words, and I suggest that we do just that.

One constituency that Harper is particularly eager to please is his own “red-meat” base, and there’s plenty for them to munch on in the Throne Speech. Our national crime rate continues to drop, but somehow even tougher measures are allegedly needed, including American-style life imprisonment without parole. There’s a handwave or two about the victims of crime, but the real emphasis here is all on punishment.

Safe injection sites, a proven harm-reduction measure, will be subject to new restrictions, and legitimate medical uses of illegal drugs will be curtailed. Social conservatism is still front and centre: for all the noise about helping women abroad, for example, some serious scepticism on that score is called for.

Nor are the more positive measures in the speech as substantial as one might have hoped. The much-ballyhooed consumer focus, for example, turned out to be cheaper cellphone charges, a mild trimming of bank fees, unbundling cable television channels and eliminating “geographic price discrimination” against Canadians—however the government plans to accomplish that. Food and drug labelling will be improved—but the new free trade deal with the European Union will raise the cost of drugs to provincial drug plans and the consumer by a billion dollars a year.

Even the feeble gestures of outreach to the Aboriginal communities—e.g., mentioning the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation that established a relationship between Aboriginal people and the Crown—are self-erasing. Notice that Aboriginal people simply disappear from the face of the earth in this part of the speech: “Pioneers, then few in number, reached across a vast continent. They forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed.” But those pioneers wouldn’t have lasted a year had it not been for indigenous people teaching them hunting and farming techniques, and complex survival skills. Why are they not getting the credit they so richly deserve?

“Our Government will renew its efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,” we are assured. What does this even mean? Don’t make “efforts to address,” Mr. Prime Minister. Address!

Empty measures also have their prominent place in the speech. Part of that sound fiscal management we keep hearing about will include legislation to force governments to present balanced budgets. That will likely be about as effective as the fixed election date law—remember? Legislation that purports to bind Parliament’s hands does nothing of the sort: it stays in force until Parliament decides that it doesn’t. But it does sound tough and no-nonsense, doesn’t it?

Pipelines are needed so we don’t “strand our resources,” but don’t worry, “higher safety standards” are to be set for companies operating them. But who is going to enforce those standards in this era of deregulation and cutbacks?

Descending for a moment into pure farce, changes to Canada’s elections laws are promised, “to uphold the integrity of our voting system.” This from the folks who brought you robocalls and phantom poll booths. What crust! It`s like an arsonist calling for better fire-prevention measures.

The bottom line? It’s all business as usual. Nothing is about to change here, not even the government’s arrogant style. Reporters were barred from Harper’s speech to his caucus just before the Throne Speech—and then publicly attacked for “boycotting” it. The old omnibus ploy was used yet again, this time in a motion, not a bill, but the same contempt for democracy is still at work.

The Throne Speech did cover a lot of ground, and it promised a lot of things to a lot of people, but once the smoke has cleared and the mirrors have been packed away, we’re just left rubbing our eyes. For me, that old sinking feeling, suspended perhaps during that hour or so of pomp and ceremony, is back with a vengeance. Two more years before the next election. Oh, boy.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on October 18, 2013 8:40 AM.

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