Speech from the Throne: promises, hints, and the spending power

It’s been a busy week in Ottawa, and policy wonks will not lack for documents to review. The three big documents, generally not all tabled in a two-day period, were the Speech from the Throne, the Budget, and two sets of Estimates documents (main and supplementary C). Only wonks would find them all interesting (or even any of them, really), but there is important information in each of them.

In the interest of focus and relative brevity, this post will deal only with the Speech from the Throne (SFT), intended to articulate the Government’s intentions for the third session of the 40th Parliament; it was filled with tidbits that could make some policy wonks salivate.

For labour market policy wonks, the Government promised continued effort on “job creation and job protection,” with special help for young Canadians seeking to enter the labour market.

For those interested in education, there are commitments to increased collaboration with provincial governments and other stakeholders to improved education, especially for Aboriginal students, and to support for for student success.

For those concerned with the general direction of social programs and policies, the Government promised that fiscal restraint would not come at the expense of pensioners, transfer payments for health or education, or by raising taxes; instead it would come from greater efficiencies in government encouraged if not required by freezes in departmental operating budgets, and wage freezes among MPs, Senators, and Cabinet Ministers.

For policy wonks (like me) who take an interest in how things identified in the SFT are actually implemented, here are a few that will be interesting to monitor:

  • the elimination of “unnecessary appointments to federal agencies, boards, commissions and Crown corporations,”
  • promised interventions to support several traditional industries – forestry, fisheries, dairy and poultry and barley products, and ship-building;
  • greater support for local responses and charitable and for-profit innovative approaches to local problems;
  • attention to the murder and disappearance of Aboriginal women and the Sisters in Spirit initiative (whose five-year funding was scheduled to end this year);
  • work with provincial governments and other stakeholders to strengthen the retirement income system;
  • a commitment to build upon the historical apology to Aboriginal peoples;
  • the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the 60th anniversary of the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne;
  • steps to strengthen Canada’s francophone identity; and
  • further steps toward territorial devolution to the northern territories.

Finally, the Throne Speech committed the Government to “continue to respect provincial jurisdiction and to restrict the use of the federal spending power.”

In earlier speeches, the spending power was addressed with stronger language.  For example, the reference in the SFT 2008, promised a Charter of Open Federalism:

The federal spending power will be constrained so that any new shared-cost program in an area of exclusive provincial responsibility will require the consent of the majority of the provinces to proceed, and that non-participating provinces can opt out with compensation, provided that they implement compatible programs or initiatives.

The SFT 2007 also promised a legislated constraint:

… our Government will introduce legislation to place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power for new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. This legislation will allow provinces and territories to opt out with reasonable compensation if they offer compatible programs.

The language in those two speeches was strongly reminiscent of the provisions of the Social Union Framework Agreement, developed in 1999 to regulate the relationship between governments, and which addressed the federal spending power explicitly.

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    • Susan Carter
    • March 5th, 2010

    What a fabulous treasure trove – setting out markers for issues promised or hinted at – Good work pulling it together!

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