October 12, 1999
Children focus of throne speech
Technology high on Liberal agendaBy Tim Harper
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA - Children and technology are expected to be the twin pillars on which Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals will build as they prepare to take Canadians into a new century.
Chrétien is to make a major announcement tomorrow on the specifics of a program to invest in children, repeating the new tradition he created in 1997 by announcing the $2.5 billion Millennium Scholarship Fund a day after the throne speech.
Sources said last night the theme of today's speech will be ``Canada's place in the world in the 21st century.''
Aside from the main focus on children, sources said, the speech will include a commitment to an infrastructure program similar to one launched after the 1993 election, investment in post-secondary education, a new focus on research and development and a commitment to battle homelessness across the country.
When newly installed Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson outlines the government's plans for the second half of its mandate this afternoon, investment in children is expected to be emphasized.
The Speech From the Throne is traditionally an opportunity for a government to throw on a fresh coat of paint and dress up some vague directions in a pretty package adorned by much pomp and ceremony.
But this one is important because it is a reaffirmation of Chrétien's promise to split his government's surplus, estimated at $9 billion, between social spending and tax relief.
``The government has a few pillars it will emphasize, but certainly an investment in children and families is key,'' one source said.
Clarkson - she is merely the messenger for a speech written in the Prime Minister's office - will mention a five-year tax relief plan, but, as Chrétien has made clear, tax breaks will not come at the expense of planned social spending.
In a speech last week that foreshadowed today's formal address, the Prime Minister likened his government to a business that cannot be fixated on today's bottom line while ignoring an investment in the future.
To that end, the Liberals in this session are expected to extend the $7 billion Child Tax Benefit program beyond the 3 million poor families it now covers. They are expected to extend maternity benefits and parental leave and announce some tax relief for families who have children at home.
No specifics will be announced on tax measures. Those will come in February during Finance Minister Paul Martin's budget.
There will be mention of nutritional and pre-natal government programs that will cover the first five years of a child's life, as well as an investment in the teaching of technological skills for the very young.
Without such an investment, Chrétien said last week, the country runs the risk of raising a generation that exhibits anti-social behaviour and Canada will fall behind other countries in a global economy that emphasizes technology.
One in five Canadian children - about 1.5 million - live in poverty.
All other initiatives contained in the speech will relate back to children and families, said one highly placed source.
Chrétien, in the first throne speech since 1997, is also expected to pledge action on the environment, medical research, technological research, foreign aid and law and order.
Because of the symbolism attached to the new millennium, Chrétien will also try to deal with what is known as the ``vision thing'' in Ottawa.
Although much of his electoral success is thanks to an incremental approach to policy - a caretaker-approach as opposed to that of a radical activist - that management style has also spawned criticism that has dogged him since his 1993 election.
Manning advocates 25 per cent tax break over three years
He and his government have often been accused of meandering, lacking direction and being bereft of the vision needed to steer the country toward bold new initiatives.
Chrétien often jokes about that tag, as he did twice last week, once during his annual Confederation fundraiser dinner in downtown Toronto and Friday following a meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton.
He reminds audiences that under his stewardship, the country has been ranked by the United Nations as the best in the world in which to live.
``I want to carry into the 21st century with the same thing. And they say I have no vision,'' he said Friday.
``Imagine if I had a vision.''
Opposition leader Preston Manning said without tax relief that Canadians can see on their paycheques - he's advocating a 25 per cent break over three years - the throne speech will be irrelevant to the country.
``The Liberals seem to discuss children as if they were disembodied spirits which were not connected with the rest of society,'' the Reform leader said.
``If the Liberals want to do something practical for children, then they should stop overtaxing their parents.''
Clarkson kicks off the second session of the 36th Parliament in the Senate chambers.
But the real fireworks begin tomorrow.
Since MPs left the capital last June, there has been an influx of illegal migrants on the west coast, the country's airline industry is in transition and a tense situation continues on the east coast pitting native against non-native fishermen following a Supreme Court ruling.
That promises to put Transport Minister David Collenette, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan and Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal in the forefront during daily question period.
With files from William Walker
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