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Harper's words carry a softer tone

Gone is the brinkmanship; Ignatieff amused to hear echoes of his own statements

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper's government opened the new Parliament with an atypical tone of contrition, in a Throne Speech that spoke of compromise and consultation and borrowed phrases from opponent Michael Ignatieff.

Mr. Harper had used past Throne Speeches to launch games of political chicken with adversaries, daring them to vote against plans they disliked and then face an election.

This time, it was a brief, gloomy address notable for its lack of confrontation.

In December, the Conservatives escaped defeat at the hands of a Liberal-NDP coalition only when Mr. Harper asked the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament. And though their survival really hangs on Tuesday's budget, Parliament's return began with Mr. Harper's promise to change.

“The government's agenda and the priorities of Parliament must adapt in response to the deepening crisis,” Governor-General Michaëlle Jean read. “Old assumptions must be tested and old decisions must be rethought.”

Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, said there was an extraordinary contrast between the aggressive tone of the government's October fiscal update and Monday's Throne Speech – but that the concrete measures of the budget will be the test.

“This government appears to have a split personality,” he said. “Our difficulty as the Official Opposition is figuring out who to believe; which government to believe.”

By tradition, the Speech from the Throne, drafted by the Prime Minister's Office but read by the Governor-General, contains few specifics, but sets a broad outline for the government's priorities for the parliamentary session.

In October, 2007, Mr. Harper's Throne Speech outlined an agenda of law-and-order crime legislation, tax cuts and extending the Afghanistan mission – and he dared the opposition to accept it or defeat him.

Monday's skimpy, 28-paragraph address stressed a promise to co-operate, lauded the government's broad prebudget consultations and said the Tories had approached those efforts “in a spirit of open and non-partisan co-operation.”

In lifting Mr. Ignatieff's phrases, it dispelled any doubt Mr. Harper's Conservatives are swallowing past rhetoric to seek opposition support.

In a speech last week, the Liberal Leader set three tests for the budget: “Will it protect the vulnerable? Will it save jobs? And most importantly, will it create the jobs of tomorrow?”

The Throne Speech replied with promises of programs to “protect the vulnerable,” and added, “These actions will protect the jobs of today while readying the economy to create the jobs of tomorrow.”

Mr. Ignatieff joked: “Imitation is a sincere form of flattery.”

But NDP Leader Jack Layton dismissed the conciliatory phrasing, saying he's heard it before.

“You can't have confidence in Mr. Harper when he moves into that tone. He reverts all too quickly to the my-way-or-the-highway approach to governance,” he told reporters.

The New Democrats still pin hopes on defeating Mr. Harper in the budget vote and joining a Liberal-led coalition. Mr. Layton warned his potential coalition partners that Mr. Harper's co-operative nature will vanish in the spring, when defeat of his government might lead the Governor-General to call an election rather than ask the coalition to govern.

Heritage Minister James Moore said Mr. Harper and his government are sincere in their desire to make the minority Parliament function.

“We want this budget to pass, because it has strong and important investments in infrastructure, in tax policy for Canadians, in my portfolios for arts and culture for Canadian communities,” he said.

Despite the olive branches, it was hardly an upbeat address.

It began with the phrase, “In these uncertain times,” reminded parliamentarians their predecessors had heard Throne Speeches in times of other crises, including the Great Depression, and closed with a wish that MPs will be graced by divine intervention: “May Divine Providence be your guide and inspiration.”

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