So today was the big day that we’ve been waiting for ever since the 43rd General Election ended. We saw the official return of the House of Commons, the election of the new Speaker in the morning then followed by the Speech from the Throne in the afternoon. Today brought a lot of the ceremony and is usually a day that poli-geeks across the country look forward to.
But today was a bit different for one very simple logical reason: with the renovations to the Centre Block, the Senate and the House are in two separate buildings 700 metres apart (as CBC so precisely pointed out). That difference made the pomp and circumstance a bit different, as the Black Rod shuttled back and forth between the West Block and the old Ottawa Train Station in a black van, with Parliamentarians and dignitaries in tow. It all made for a different sight, but that was an interesting quirk to be bigger news of the day.
This morning started with the Speakers election, something that takes on greater importance in a minority government. The Speaker not only runs the show in the House, they get an extra $100,000 a year, an apartment on the Hill and use of Kingmere, the official residence of the Speaker in the Gatineau Hills. Those are some nice perks, along with the responsibilities in the job.
MPs cast their vote for that role and the result was a bit surprising to me; Liberal Anthony Rota won, defeating the outgoing Liberal Speaker Geoff Regan. While there was some grumbling about some of Regan’s decisions from the last Parliament, I thought he would be safely re-elected. But it seems that Mr. Regan was the last choice of all the Opposition Parties on their ranked ballots. Amazingly this appears to be the first time Canadian history an incumbent Speaker lost the speakers chair without his or her party losing the election or their own retirement. Surprising indeed.
In the afternoon Governor General Julie Payette delivered the much anticipated Speech from the Throne, telling Canadians what the Liberal governments priorities are for the 43rd Parliament. As expected, the speech was relatively short on details, making it easier for enough of the Opposition parties to support it and keep this government going.
Given that expectation, it is very noteworthy about where the speech did get specific and some of the pledges put forward in it. The government pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, a firm date and a firm pledge, no matter how far out it looks. The government also pledged to cut the cost of cell phone and wireless services by 25% and to also close the infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities by 2030. All of these firm dates and targets are interesting, but as with any such promises, the devil will be in the details and the opposition parties will have to judge those at a later date when they become clearer. Will they actually follow through on the spirit of those promises and back them up with words? We don’t know that today but that’s a question for another day.
Some promises were made as a clear attempt to curry favour with specific parties too. We saw pledges to start introducing and implementing national pharmacare, introducing new UNDRIP legislation within a year, allowing municipalities to implement hand gun bans and to increase the federal minimum wage. These are all issues that the NDP advocated for in the last Parliament and during the campaign, so it’s interesting to see them contained in the speech.
Interestingly this speech mostly stayed away from the minority parliament tradition of having a poison pill or two in it. The Harper Conservatives made sport of this in the two minority Parliaments, making it clear they were just as interested in making their opponent feel political pain as they were in advancing their agenda. There was next to no reaching across the aisle back then, and that was a model the Liberals could have followed here too. But they seemed to stay away from that approach this time, as there aren’t any real poison pills compared to what the Blue Crew would deploy a decade ago. That fact may help set a good tone for this parliament to work and make it much easier for most of the opposition parties to vote for this speech.
But in the end the real test for the intentions of this speech will be the actions that come after this and what the details look like. The fact is that this speech was designed to be written in such a way that it could get passed with relative ease, and deal with the rest of the details in 2020 when other events might completely change the make-up of the House (namely if Andrew Scheer will still be Conservative leader by the Spring). It would have been foolhardy of the Liberals to try to do what Stephen Harper did after the 2008 election, which lead to the whole coalition crisis.
Getting the tone right today mattered a lot more than the substance of the speech and in that sense, they seem to be on the right track. For the NDP and Bloc, this isn’t the greatest Throne Speech ever written but it’s far from the worst. We’ll see what they end up doing with this, but I suspect that one way or another there won’t be much suspense around the votes on this speech. But in the end, this Parliament has started and the show is up and running again. We’ve got six more sitting days before the Holidays and we’ll get a taste of what this new Parliament will be like.