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Throne Speech is most notable for what it does not say

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Keep Karl on Parl

Speeches from the Throne are generally short on details and long on rhetoric, and the new Trudeau government's first is no exception -- in spades.

This speech is, in fact, virtually bereft of any detail whatsoever.

It may set a record for brevity (not a bad thing) and complete lack of specificity (maybe not such a good thing).

The Trudeau government's first Throne Speech starts with -- surprise, surprise -- the middle class.

It promises a middle class tax cut, but provides no details, and certainly does not indicate whether or not the government has figured out a way to avoid the unintended consequence of simultaneously giving a tax cut to six figure earners.

The speech also fails to mention the promised tax increase on taxable incomes over $200,000.

We will probably get the fine print on all that next week.

Helping the middle class means working with provinces

The "middle class" chapter of the speech also promises to replace the Harper government's Universal Child Benefit payments with a new, targeted, Canada Child Benefit. More will go to those who need the money most; less to those, such as the prime minister himself, who do not need the cash.

And, of course, the speech reiterates the Liberals' pledge to make significant infrastructure investments.

The government also commits to work with the provinces in a number of ways, to wit, to make post-secondary education "more affordable," to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, and to develop a new Health Accord.

Finally, under the rubric of Growth for the Middle Class, the Liberals will, in unspecified ways, strengthen the Employment Insurance system.

Goodbye to first-past-the-post. Hello to... ?

Having dispensed with every politician's favourite class, the speech then moves on to Open and Transparent Government.

Here, the Trudeau team reiterates a big and potentially game-changing promise, namely that "2015 will be the last election conducted under the first-past-the-post system."

Canadians with strongly held points of view are already lining up on the various sides of this promise.

Many who advocate electoral reform are fearful that the Trudeau team prefers some sort of ranked ballot system rather than what most reformers favour: a mixed-member proportional system.

A ranked ballot would allow voters to indicate second, third and fourth choices and would factor those into the final tally, when no candidate wins 50 per cent of the first choice votes.

Such a system would work against narrowly focused parties such as the Harper Conservatives, whose main aim seemed to be to win a majority of seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote.

Harper pursued a divisive strategy that alienated more voters than it attracted. He did not care that his party was virtually nobody else's second choice. There are no second choice votes in the current system.

A ranked ballot system would make such a strategy virtually unworkable. Parties would have to make nice with the other political players and moderate their stands if they hoped to attract second and third choices.

The ranked ballot would also preserve our current, single-member constituency system. Canadians would still know who their member of parliament was, and each MP would still represent a single riding.

To many, that is a virtue. It would mean change, but not too much change.

Those who want mixed-member proportional favour a parliament that would be composed both of single constituency members and of members elected based on the proportion of the vote their party got.

The number of constituency versus proportional members could vary.

In one model, proposed in Ontario in 2007, well more than half of the members would remain the traditional single-member, first-past-the-post kind. The 2007 Ontario reform (which lost badly at the ballot box) proposed only a small balancing element of proportionally elected members.

The current German system, which many electoral reformers cite as a model, has the balance at 50-50. It provides for an equal number of the two types of members.

Why do so many electoral reformers prefer mixed-member proportional? Because it would guarantee that all political parties with support above a minimum threshold got seats in parliament.

Many reformers warn that ranked ballot elections could result in a distribution of seats even more skewed than that produced by the most recent federal election.

Do not forget, they point out, that on October 19 the Liberals scooped up a big majority of the seats, but only won 39.5 per cent of the popular vote.

Get used to this debate.

The Trudeau government has just sounded the starting gun on it, with its unambiguous Throne Speech commitment.

The speech's open government pledges also include Justin Trudeau's half-baked Senate reform, which leaves Senators as non-elected legislators, while it tweaks the appointment process. As well, the new government promises more open debate and free votes in the House of Commons (we seem to have heard this one before), and an end to the abuse of omnibus bills and prorogation.

Careful words on the environment, major promises to Indigenous Canadians

A "clean" environment takes third place in the Throne Speech's priority list.

Canada will, the Liberals promise, "work toward" putting a price on carbon. "Work toward" are the key words here. The Liberals do not commit to actually do anything.

We will also have a new federal environmental process, the nature of which, for the moment, remains a mystery. Re-building the assessment process will be a major challenge, after the Harper government nearly destroyed the system that had been built up over decades by successive governments, starting with that of Trudeau's father.

A policy suite the Trudeau government labels as "Diversity" is next on the speech's list.

It is here that the Trudeau government gets around to mentioning Indigenous issues, including the promise to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and "work with First Nations so that every First Nations child receives a quality education."

The speech uses few words to make some big commitments here.

All Canadians, most especially Indigenous Canadians, will be very interested to see the details.

The speech lumps refugees and immigrants together with Indigenous people in this section, and reiterates the (recently revised) pledge to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016.

The Throne Speech is puzzlingly silent on Trudeau's election promise to restore the federal interim health-care program for refugees.

This is an urgent matter, of special importance to groups that are currently in the process of sponsoring refugees.

Those groups need to know to what extent they will be liable for the health care of the refugees they sponsor. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member of an Ottawa-based group that is sponsoring three refugee families, two from Syria and one from Eritrea).

Diversity also, it seems, includes supporting CBC/Radio-Canada, Canada's veterans and their families and investing in "Canada's cultural and creative industries."

Again, the devil is in the details on all that -- and, as yet, we have no details.

Vacuous statements on foreign affairs, nothing on C-51

The speech's last chapter bears the odd title of "Security and Opportunity." It is here that the Liberal government says the very little it has to say about foreign affairs.

The main point it makes on the international front is that "Canada will contribute to greater peace throughout the world," while continuing to "work with its allies in the fight against terrorism."

There is no mention, here or elsewhere in the speech, of what the Trudeau government will do about the Harper government's so-called anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.

The Liberals had pledged major changes to that dangerous and flawed legislative package.

Nor is there any reference, anywhere in the speech, to trade policy, in particular the Trans-Pacific Partnership, nor to any potential pipeline projects to carry tar sands bitumen to markets. The speech, in fact, is utterly silent on the tar sands. There is not a single word.

And so, there you have it. A short, and sweet Speech from the Throne -- so short, in fact, that some who received advanced copies thought, at first, they were reading the executive summary, not the whole document.

Next week, the House gathers -- for only one week.

We can expect the much-touted middle class tax measure during next week's sitting; but, most likely, not much else.

To get a sense of how the Trudeau government plans to implement its ambitious agenda we will have to wait until the New Year.

 

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