A Throne Speech, and Furthermore

Prime Minister Trudeau attends the Speech from the Throne in Ottawa. September 23, 2020/Adam Scotti

L. Ian MacDonald

September 24, 2020

A Speech from the Throne and a Prime Minister’s Address to the Nation are two completely different animals of the rhetorical species.

An SFT sets a government’s political agenda for a coming session of Parliament. But it is not a partisan event, rather it is state occasion in the sense that all actors on the political and public stage are participants, from the governor general who delivers the speech to the opposition leaders who oppose it.

A PM’s address to the nation has only a single player before the cameras, trying to rally the country to an urgent common cause.

Before Wednesday, an SFT and a PM’s Address had never been held on the same day. And it’s fair to say they never will be again. For if Wednesday has proven anything, it is that the two don’t go together and don’t belong together.

The pandemic was the pretext for bringing them together. The context was the second wave of COVID-19, the surge that began after the lockdown was lifted over the summer and many Canadians ventured out without masks and without keeping their distance. Young people crowding beaches and parks seemed to think they were immune from COVID, that the virus only killed older people.

Well, Justin Trudeau said, young Canadians should be thinking of those people, their parents and grandparents, “the generation that faced the Great Depression and the Second World War.” The greatest generation, as he noted: “They built the world of today. Now it’s up to us to build the world of tomorrow, starting with protecting them.”

The second surge is already here, the prime minister warned, citing the dramatic spike in numbers since the Labour Day long weekend. Looking ahead to the next holidays, he said: “It’s all too likely that we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas.”

Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it so that everyone gets it. And so far as it went, it was the most effective part of Trudeau’s speech. Never mind the numbers, maybe-at-Christmas was meant to strike home and it did.

But his warning about the second wave of COVID took only a few minutes of his speech. The rest of his 15-minute broadcast was actually a pitch for the throne speech.

It was kind of like saying, here’s what you just heard from the governor general in nearly an hour, now for the headlines. And not with Julie Payette, either, but with the PM, who isn’t the subject of an inquiry into alleged workplace harassment at Rideau Hall and in previous jobs occupied by the former astronaut.

But no one can accuse her of harassing the PM’s speechwriters. With the exception of the traditional Governor General’s paragraphs in the prologue, always written at Rideau Hall, she was only reading what they put in front of her. And in fairness, she read it quite well, and at a brisk pace, something to be thankful for given the length of the SFT—6,800 words on the page and 54 minutes on the clock. The normal length for an SFT is about 30 minutes.

But it should be said that the opening was very well written, succinctly stating Canadians capacity to change in the unhappy circumstances of the pandemic. “We don’t decide when hardship comes,” Payette began, “but here in Canada, we have decided how we want to address it. We have adapted in remarkable ways.”

But then as she noted: “The pandemic is the most serious public health crisis Canada has ever faced.” Over 9,000 deaths in Canada, over 200,000 in the US, and nearly one million worldwide. “These aren’t just numbers,” she said, “These are friends and family, neighbours and colleagues…parents who have died alone, without loved ones to hold their hands. It is the story of kids who have gone months without seeing  friends. Of workers who have lost their jobs.”

Managing the health crisis is one part of the government’s dilemma. Reviving the economy from the worst downturn in nearly a century since the Great Depression, is quite another.

Or as Payette delivered it in a memorable soundbite: “This isn’t the time for austerity.”

What’s it’s time for, she implied, was even more spending than the $343 billion current deficit already on the books for the fiscal year ending March 31, with at least another $50 billion in the works and perhaps as much as $150 billion. What’s $500 billion? Only about 25 per cent of a $2 trillion economy that would bring the debt-to-GDP ratio to something approaching 50 percent.

But a throne speech isn’t just a numbers game, it’s a name game, the programs that result in those costs. Like the CERB, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, the $2,000 per month relief program being folded into an enhanced Employment Insurance (EI) benefit, or the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), being given a six-month extension; or CEBA, the Canada Emergency Business Account, being expanded, perhaps with easier eligibility standards for small business.

The Liberals have a traditional party wish list for childcare, long-term care and pharmacare, details to follow. Already, Quebec is on the watch, demanding all the money while reminding the feds that these are provincial jurisdictions in the Constitution, which is why the Bloc isn’t supporting the SFT, throwing the balance of power in a minority House to the NDP, which has a shopping list of their own.

As for Trudeau’s follow-up speech, the networks had been asked for the time by the Prime Minister’s Office, so he could speak to the nation on a question of national importance. They could hardly say no.

If only, the networks must have been thinking. A throne speech is always in the afternoon, when air time is cheap. A PM’s address is always in prime time, much more expensive for them to give up, especially the supper hour news at 6.30 ET, the most lucrative local time slot of their day.

That Trudeau spoke a lot longer on the SFT rather than the pandemic is one the reasons why the networks will never allow it to happen again.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.