Speeches from the throne are about as useless a tradition as the Parliament Hill functionary designated as Black Rod knocking on the doors of the Commons. But as last week’s debate illustrated, they do set the tone for things to come.
True to themselves and their radically altered role in this new Parliament, the party leaders obliged by setting out their hidden and not-so-hidden agendas.
Jean Chrétien, who appeared so at home in the plush green finery of the lower house that you could swear he had been born there, sounded and acted, well, prime ministerial. (The best TV shot of the throne Speech debate was the camera panning in on Chrétiens seatmate, Sheila Copps, who not only had to keep her mouth shut during her leader’s drawn-out oration, but had to pretend she was enjoying it. Maybe she was daydreaming Jean would go back to Florida soon, so she could take charge of the country again.)
Chrétien made no new promises and, in fact, said very little that was fresh, leaving it to Ron Irwin, his minister of Indian affairs and northern development, to make the most important announcement of the day: that the government intended to unilaterally recognize Canada’s aboriginals’ inherent right to self-government. What Irwin’s statement left out was that not only will this initiative create the independent political clout for which Indians have been justifiably clamoring, but that it will eventually result in the phasing out of the federal Indian affairs department. That will help the native community become self-sufficient as well as self-governing, with more than $5 billion redirected according to their, not Ottawa’s, priorities. The Liberal plan amounts to nothing less than realization of the Charlottetown accord’s promises to Canada’s aboriginals, but without the need for troublesome—and in today’s political climate, impossible—constitutional amendments. The next step will be to create an independent claims commission to
Preston Manning proclaimed his sincerity with a button-down, light-blue shirt, which politicians used to wear on bad-hair days
accelerate settlement of land-rights disputes.
Lucien Bouchard, whose Bloc Québécois is still a crock, also came through in character, managing to speak longer than the other party leaders combined, without sounding a single positive note. “The pre-referendum campaign has begun,” he sourly remarked, serving notice that his not inconsiderable talents will from now on be dedicated to the single-minded goal of destroying the country that has claimed his citizenship, if not his loyalty since he switched to the separatist cause. “The Bloc Québécois has been on the federal scene more than three years, but until recently we were ranked alongside the bizarre and outer fringes,” he complained in his 36-page address.
That’s true enough. But the fault is his. Any political movement that champions no greater cause than destruction of the system that gave it birth cannot claim the legitimacy accorded to mainstream parties. At some point, the Quebecers who live in the 54 constituencies that went for the Bloc are bound to start wondering if that’s all there is. While it remains unclear exactly how many of these voters wish to separate from Canada, it is absolutely certain that it’s not their only,
or even their main, concern. If one clear message emerged from last year’s general election, it was that job security and creation of new employment opportunities, not constitutional tinkering, are what concern Canadian electors—including those who live in Quebec.
Another throne speech event that heralds future trends was an appeal to the Speaker by Jean Charest that his voice be more frequently heard in Commons debates. Like a swallow trilling his claim to space, the acting leader of the Tories sounded shrill and persuasive, but his cause lacked substance. Any acting chief of a decimated party that managed to elect only one follower (who has symbolically been denied the privilege of being seated with her leader) carries no special privilege. Perhaps it was at that precise moment, watching Charest’s pleading for attention and not getting it, that the full import of the Tory defeat set in. The party that had dominated this House for the past nine years—and an impressive total of 42 other years since it brought about Canada’s original Confederation—is no longer a player.
Neither, of course, is the NDP, which seemed altogether absent in last week’s proceedings. Somewhere during the leaderships of Ed Broadbent and Audrey McLaughlin, Canada’s socialists ceased being a protest party. The passionate opposition they had once offered to Canada’s capitalist system has been diluted by so many compromises that the movement has abandoned or forgotten its radical roots and become a fringe outlet for dyspeptic academics. Ironically, the New Democrats’ left-wing populism has been co-opted by the reactionaries of the Reform party. About the only quality Reformers and NDPers have in common is their belief in the righteousness of their cause. Nonbelievers are automatically consigned to Canada’s version of political purgatory, which means that they’re condemned and dismissed as elitists, a category that includes anybody with more than two independently programmed brain cells to rub together.
Author of the most impressive contribution to the throne speech debate was Preston Manning, his sincerity proclaimed for all to see by his button-down, light-blue shirt, which politicians used to wear on badhair days or for television appearances at least two generations ago. Manning’s message was short and to the point: stop talking politics and start cutting the deficit, or we won’t have a country left to govern. His proposal to cut $7 billion out of Ottawa’s current $160 billion spending estimates made good sense and his idea of the public faxing him questions they want asked in the Commons is a stroke of genius. There was, however, something fishy in his having placed himself in the second row of the Reformers’ parliamentary seating order. Just one of the boys. You betcha.
Still, Preston Manning’s concluding comment—“I now understand why this is called question period and not answer period”— summed up the day’s proceedings perfectly.
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