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Wed, 16 Oct 2013 16:45:00 GMT | By Deirdre McMurdy, MSN Money

Harper makes a play for the average Joe

The Tories have boxed in the Opposition while pleasing voters.


Deirdre McMurdy

Over the years, Canadians have gone about their daily lives without really pausing much to contemplate the start of a new Parliamentary session or the Government’s Speech from the Throne.

This might be the year when Canadians actually pay attention to the start of a new parliamentary session. This Throne Speech will focus on a number of issues that will have a direct impact on the quality of our daily lives as consumers and families.

Among these likely measures are: capping domestic roaming charges for mobile telephones; forcing television service providers to “unbundle” so that consumers only pay for the channels they want (known as “pick and pay”); introducing a passenger bill of rights for air travellers; capping vendor fees on credit cards; introducing tougher penalties for child sex offenders.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has often been characterized a cerebral, policy-obsessed leader. His record, however, demonstrates clearly that it’s politics (and power) — not policy — that drives his actions.

Recent polls have shown that the number of Canadians who say they will not vote for the Tories has been rising alarmingly. Although the Conservatives can count on about 30 per cent of the population for support, they need more than that to stay in office. Consumer-friendly initiatives such as pick-and-pay television channels or an air traveller’s bill of rights are squarely aimed at undecided voters.

The press gallery has been banging on about how these measures are not “Conservative.” But that ignores this party’s populist Reform roots — a movement in which Prime Minister Harper actively participated.

The Reformers always made it clear that they were about Main Street, not Bay Street. And consumer-oriented policies are entirely in keeping with that.

Furthermore, this is a group and a mindset that’s always been deeply suspicious of big corporations. They’ve displayed that in their grudging attitude to the banks (by blocking them from moving into insurance), and the recent war with Canada’s three large telecom companies over the upcoming spectrum auction reinforced it.

This is a government that has no issue sticking its finger into the eye of Big Business. In fact, they quite seem to enjoy it.

Not only that, it plays well with voters, building a grassroots perception that there is common purpose and a will to stand up for the little guy. It also handily offsets blaring headlines about over-entitled, fat cat Tory Senators abusing their privileges.

Legendary U.S. politician Tip O’Neil memorably declared: “all politics is local.” It’s fine to say that the Tories should be tackling big policy issues head-on, but there’s no money for all of that. And the micro-issues are a better platform in terms of resonating with voters across an increasingly fragmented country.

Consumer issues, after all, matter to everyone — even those who disagree on everything else.

That said, the Harper government is about to pull a rabbit out of its hat — whether by accident, or careful planning.

Canada is in the final stages of striking a free trade deal with the European Union, something that had appeared DOA for a long time. The deal now seems set to give them glorious new life and lots of promises to make for the future.

The timing couldn’t be better as Canada’s major trade partner, the U.S., continues to make its way into debtors' hell over the next 16 hours or so.

The consumer-centric agenda also heralds the rise of a new power in Ottawa and in the cabinet: Industry Minister James Moore.

It is a testament to Minister Moore’s clout and the P.M.’s trust in him, that he was given such a visible role in whacking at the telecom giants over the summer and then following up with these initiatives.

It’s clearly not a good idea to mess with him, and that is something that telephone companies and their television networks  may want to keep in mind: at the end of the day and no matter how enraged they may be, the telecoms can’t go around him.

Finally, the consumer focus of the Throne Speech boxes in the other parties neatly and steals onto their turf by occupying the middle —once again. The consumer agenda is likely to soar over any hurdles because it’s impossible to oppose measures that appear to appeal to the 'common man' in this way.

We can all expect to see more of this positioning as the horizon for the next federal election draws ever closer. And what may be a boon for Canadian families will present an enormous challenge for the Liberal Party.

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