As Parliament Opens, Canada's Leader Promises the Basics
TORONTO — CANADA'S Parliament opened Tuesday, a grand event with formalities that included a period-dressed Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod rapping on the door of the Senate chambers to gain admission for members of the House of Commons. The members of Parliament filed in and shortly thereafter, Governor-General Ramon Hnatyshyn, the Queen of England's representative to Canada, launched the 35th Parliament in Ottawa with the traditional Throne Speech, authored by Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
But the ornate preliminaries contrasted sharply with the 17-minute, no-frills speech outlining the Chretien government's agenda. Normally 45 minutes to an hour long, the new government's sober message was stripped of the self-congratulation that has come typically to adorn it.
Instead, Mr. Chretien pledged first to restore government integrity and then to create more jobs, overhaul social programs, reduce the deficit, and revamp the nation's health care system. Specifics included:
* Restoring government integrity by requiring the highest ethical standards of his own party and by reforms that include appointing an ethics counselor to Parliament and modifying the parliamentary pension plan.
* Boosting the economy and creating jobs through a national-provincial infrastructure program and youth service corps, while making capital more available to small and medium-sized businesses. He also wants to create a special fund to provide capital for firms with leading-edge technologies; knock down trade barriers between provinces; and form a national data highway.
* Reforming the social security system in two years.
* Creating a task force with Chretien at the helm that will look at reforming the nation's health care system.
* Dealing with the deficit. ``The government will pursue the fiscal discipline necessary for sustained economic growth,'' Mr. Hnatyshyn read, leaving details to the first government budget.
This latter point, dealt with broadly and briefly in the address, drew fire from Reform Party leader Preston Manning, Parliament's western voice, who pointed out that just a day earlier, Canada's federal debt had reached the C$500 billion (US$381 billion) level. ``There's no acknowledgment in the Speech from the Throne of the seriousness of that problem,'' Mr. Manning told reporters. ``A government that's a half a trillion dollars in debt - you'd think there'd be alarm bells going off all over the place.''
Official Opposition leader Lucien Bouchard, who leads the separatist contingent from Quebec, the Bloc Qucois, said the speech did not address the issue of Quebec's place in Canada. ``There is nothing, for example, on what the government intends to do on the constitutional problem and the economic problems it causes,'' he said. Quebec politicians have long complained that duplication of services saps their province's economic vitality.
Both opposition party leaders attacked the speech for its overall lack of detail and vision. Several analysts also said the speech was reminiscent of the one set forth by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1984 who also spoke of renewing faith in government.