A Green Speech From The Throne

A Green Speech From The ThroneHonourable Senators, Members of the House of Commons, Ladies and gentlemen,

A Speech from the Throne – in our Westminster parliamentary democracy – should bear fidelity to all our traditions. Canada is a Constitutional monarchy.  Canada is a Westminster Parliamentary democracy and that is why I, as Governor General, read a speech filling the role of stand-in monarch.  The Speech from the Throne, prepared by those in majority in the House of Commons, despite its quaint rituals, represents the underscoring of the fundamental principles of legitimate governance, going back to 1215 and Magna Carta. Government is only legitimate by consent of the governed.

We meet in the Senate chambers, the Canadian version of the House of Lords and purview of monarchy, following the ritual lone walk by the Senate’s Usher of the Black Rod to visit the House of Commons.  The slamming of the Commons door in the face of the visiting royal representative is more than a peculiar anachronism.  It is the on-going recognition of the fundamental principle of the supremacy of Parliament – and, in particular, of the Commoners as supreme over the monarch.  Our traditions, observed more often as bizarre rituals of dwindling consequence, are actually important.

They express the reality that our living, breathing democracy shares the air of those fields at Runnymede in 1215 when the king had to accept that even a king cannot ignore the people. Magna Carta came from that commitment – a king must consult the commoners.  And that is why, lined up behind that small barrier at the doors of this chamber, stand the commoners – the legitimate representatives of the people of Canada – the House of Commons.  I am mindful, as the prime minister has asked me to mention, that she is not seated here to my right, as previous prime ministers have been, but standing with the other Members of Parliament.  This tradition is practiced in the UK. It is somewhat odd that it had slipped away in Canada.  Members of Parliament, commoners all – equal in theory – represent the people of Canada.

It is important that the roles be respected.  Democracy in the 21st Century hangs in a vulnerable place – between corporate rule, totalitarianism and hyper-partisan manipulation.  If a prime minister sits with royalty in ceremony, it won’t be long before conventions are violated.  The early decisions by a previous prime minister to shut down the House, prorogation of parliament, in 2008 and 2009, were essentially unconstitutional.  If we are to preserve a real democracy, we need to remember that our somewhat colourful customs are symbolic reminders of fundamental principles:

To be legitimate, government must exist by consent of the governed; Parliament is supreme;

The prime minister reports to parliament and not the other way around.

In that context, I am reading the planned direction of my government. I represent here Her Majesty the Queen, and I represent a government comprised of the members of the party with a majority in Parliament, as well as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.  It is understood that this “loyalty” is not to the prime minister, but to Canada.  All MPs are equal, for all stand as representatives of the people of the communities found in their electoral districts.  Even the prime minister is, in theory, “first among equals”  — a commoner and never the King.

For too long, we have operated as though the “government” could be labeled the purview of any one party; or worse, any one prime minister. It is Her Majesty’s government, meaning it is Canada’s government, the peoples’ government.

Restoring a Healthy Democracy

In 2017, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and it is our goal that we restore the health of Canadian democracy to mark that celebration.  We will entertain ideas for reforms from Canadians from coast to coast to coast. The evidence suggests that voter turn-out will rise once we have a healthy voting system, but my government particularly wants to find ways to engage Canadian youth in the life of our nation and in decisions about their future.

This parliament will make its top priority a number of steps to protect the essence of democracy.  It is a Citizens First Agenda.

The Parliament will be asked to address the dysfunctionality of our electoral system.   We will hold hearings across Canada to assess how Canadians feel about the “winner take all” or “First Past the Post” system.  There are a range of options to reform the voting system.  Most modern democracies use some form of proportional representation, and we need to explore which one of those systems best work for Canada.

It is our intention to see one of them put into effect prior to the next election.  However, we want to ensure Canadians are engaged and supportive of the change.  Certainly, few will argue that a system of voting that allows total control to a party whose candidates receive a minority of the vote is not healthy.  While one political party may enjoy its access to total majority power with a minority of the vote, its supporters will not be happy when the tide turns and another party gains the same “false majority.”

Our government will also propose some over-due changes to the Elections Act.  We will repeal changes brought in by the previous government that have been shown to disadvantage voters without a driver’s license and a stable address.  Populations disadvantaged include First Nations, students, the homeless, and seniors who have given up driving.  We need better prior enumeration of eligible voters, and we need to reduce to zero the risk of citizens entitled to vote being turned away from their polling place due to a technicality.

The Elections Act also need to be amended to place advertising limits on political parties outside of writ periods.  As well, our government will propose changes to prohibit use of the airwaves for paid political advertising, as is the case in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil and a number of other modern democracies.  Instead, television and radio networks will be required to broadcast public interest messages focusing on advancing understanding of the various parties’ positions on issues, not on ad hominem attacks on other party leaders, contrived by professional advertisers.

The requirement for the leader’s signature on the nomination papers of candidates will be replaced with the signatures of local executives, where an Electoral District Association exists, and where one does not, the signatures of other local members will suffice.  We also will introduce provisions to the Elections Act to allow members of an elected caucus of any parliamentary party to initiate a leadership review. These changes are intended to rebalance the powers of leaders of political parties in Canada with the systems in use in all other Commonwealth nations.  Over time, leaders of Canadian political parties have gained powers, more akin to those of a presidential nominee in the United States – but without any of the checks and balances that exist in the very different system found south of the border.

We will also cut the budget for the operation of the Prime Minister’s Office in half and ensure that it be controlled over time as a fixed proportion of GDP.

It is long overdue, but to restore Canadians’ confidence in full, free and fair elections, we will hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the election irregularities of the 2011 election (the so-called “robocalls” scandal) and we will ask the Royal Commission to investigate the actions of the RCMP Commissioner in 2005-2006 election to see if anything inappropriate or illegal occurred in that instance.

Senate reform is also a critical issue for many Canadians, but requires opening the Constitution in order to make significant changes.  None of the changes proposed in this agenda require Constitutional changes.  We propose that all former prime ministers be convened as a small working group to provide advice as to how the Senate can be reformed.  This will, by definition, be a pan-partisan group.  All have appointed senators and all are familiar with the reasons Canadians have lost faith in the institution.

Justice for First Nations, Inuit and Metis

One key priority is to revisit the recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and work together, on a nation to nation basis, to enact its recommendations.  First Nations education, housing and provision of clean water remain unfinished priorities.  The rights and responsibilities to respect indigenous peoples’ decision-making on their traditional territories requires a serious review.  True and meaningful consultation is required.

Tackling the Climate Crisis

Well before we celebrate our 150th birthday we need to tackle the single biggest threat to our collective future – the climate crisis.  The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report confirms what we have known for decades – human activity is changing the world’s climate in ways that will be increasingly dangerous.

We know we have time to act, but we have very little time. A window of opportunity for a sensible transition to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is barely open.  We will enter into a process of federal, provincial and territorial discussions to ensure a comprehensive plan that covers all economic sectors.  We will end the sloppy and perverse practice of subsidizing fossil fuels and we will place a price on carbon.  The climate agenda of this government will ensure coordinated and aggressive action to diversify the Canadian economy, through more value chains and more value added in relation to all natural resource exports.  We will set shared goals for energy security, maximizing jobs, and the transition to a low-carbon economy.  We will accelerate action in relation to coal-fired power plants with a goal of phasing them out entirely by 2020.

An adaptation plan will also be a priority, dovetailing it to the massive agenda to upgrade critical infrastructure.  We pledge to work creatively with partners at the municipal level of government to ease the unfair burden they face. The changing climate will require significant improvements in transportation, waterworks, and other key infrastructure.  Preventative action now will save lives later.

Restoring Environmental Laws

Recognizing that the strongest economies are those with the strongest environmental laws, we will restore the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to its pre-2012 status, as well as repairing the damage done by the 2012 omnibus bills to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Water Protection Act.  The National Round Table on Environment and Economy Act will be tabled for First Reading with a change that places the Minister of Finance as chair of the effort to integrate sound environmental policy in all levels of government decision-making.

Rights to Information

Effective citizens require sound information.  This means that citizens have a right to know what is in their foods.  Full information includes where the food has been produced and how it was produced.  Labelling to identify genetically modified foods will allow those who wish to eat GMO foods to locate them on their supermarket shelves and those who want to avoid them to do so.

Citizens have the right to review any scientific research conducted by independent government scientists.  All such research should be in the public domain.

Members of Parliament require better information as well.  We need to restore evidence-based decision-making.  This includes fiscal decisions for which MPs in recent years have received a paucity of information.  We will propose legislation to make the Parliamentary Budget Office a stand-alone and properly funded operation, separate from the Library of Parliament.  The Parliamentary Budget Officer will be an Officer of Parliament.  All government operations should be made transparent.  This includes all spending by MPs and Senators.

Better information also requires returning to the tradition of an independent, professional, non-partisan public service – free of partisan interference.  No public servant should fear being pressed to assemble “facts” in support of a previously set course.  In recent years we have seen a rise in “decision-based evidence making.”  This must end before it corrupts the very essence of responsible governance.

Growing a Healthy Economy

Critical in the next few years is to ensure the Canadian economy is healthy.  We have been missing critical opportunities in the cleantech sector, as well as in enhanced demand side management to reduce waste of energy.  We have the opportunity to grow sectors of our economy in many different regions of Canada, while maintaining resource-based activity in Alberta.

Canada is not a zero-sum game.  All parts of the country benefit from policies that encourage entrepreneurial spirit and assist the commercialization of new technologies.  Support for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and small business, the major employers in our economy, is central to our government’s economic strategy.  We will introduce legislation to ensure all government bills are assessed for their impact on small business and SMEs.

We need to make a major effort to reduce the persistent unemployment rate among Canadian youth.  We will also reverse the punitive Employment Insurance changes that make life more difficult for those in seasonal industries.

Trade and investment

This government will clarify the muddy waters around foreign direct investment.  We will include a definition of “national security” in the Investment Canada Act.  And we will hold a full review, with exacting cost-benefit analysis of the class of agreements called Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreements (FIPAs).  We will not ratify or negotiate any investment agreements until we have assessed their impacts.  Our government will respectfully engage with the Peoples’ Republic of China as the FIPA with China was signed in September 2012, has not yet been ratified, and must not be ratified in the absence of a clear review of its impacts.  We will work to ensure a clear communication of Canada’s interests without slamming the door on investment that meets Canada’s needs.  Just as other nations have done, we will pursue trade, without sacrificing sovereignty through flawed FIPAs.

A Fairer Society

In recognition of the failure of mandatory minimums as a criminal justice strategy, we will review all legislation and particularly the Criminal Code to remove mandatory minimums.  We will enhance law enforcement resources, freeing up limited time and money by legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis.  We will restore the Law Reform Commission and ask for a review of the recent changes in criminal law as well as immigration and refugee law to ensure they are charter compliant.

We will work with the national Ombudsman for Victims of Crime to improve supports for victims of violent crime and we will improve the rigour of laws to protect investors from white-collar crime.  It will be a priority of this government to bring to justice those who set out to cheat seniors of their savings.

We will launch a national inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women of Canada.  Without waiting for the results of that investigation we will create better tools for law enforcement, such as a national DNA data bank for victims of crime, to be cross-referenced with data banks of the missing.

Protecting Canadian Health Care

The health care agenda also needs attention.  We will initiate talks with the provincial and territorial governments on the next phase of the Health Accord. It is our goal that we find ways to reduce rising costs, particularly through controlling the price of pharmaceutical drugs. A national pharmacare programme, and the creation of a federal unit to provide advice modelled on the British Columbia Therapeutics Initiative will be a top priority for the Minister of Health.

Restoring our global reputation

My government is also committed to restoring Canada’s once strong international reputation.  We need to return to multilateralism, engaging, rather than shunning the world.  Our new focus on addressing climate change will help, but so too must we re-invest in diplomacy, peace-keeping and human rights around the world.  The elimination of poverty is critical.  We will work to meet the goal set by Lester Pearson of 0.7% GDP to Official Development Assistance by 2020.

Putting Citizens First

A Citizens First agenda means that we take seriously our obligations as government to the on-going relationship with those who elect their representatives.  The reality is that Members of Parliament work for their constituents and not for their political parties.  Reducing partisanship and competition in political discourse and finding ways to work together for the betterment of all is central.

This is an ambitious agenda.  There is much more that needs to be done, but if we all pull together, nothing is impossible.