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Harper takes aim at deficit with throne speech, opposition says there's no new ideas

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is fashioning himself Canada's top frugalista with a throne speech meant to impress with style, yet cost little at the cash register.

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is fashioning himself Canada's top frugalista with a throne speech meant to impress with style, yet cost little at the cash register.

Aside from some new low-cost accessories - such as loosening of foreign investment rules and more help for single parents - the rest of the wardrobe is a retailoring of previous Conservative priorities.

The agenda "recalibration" the Tories promised when Harper controversially shut down Parliament in late December consists mainly of a more restrained spending plan that will shape Thursday's federal budget.

It's aimed at slicing the record $56-billion deficit the Tories have run up as part of last year's big-money, recession-buster budget.

"To realize the hopes Canadians hold for themselves and their families, the economy must remain our government's single most urgent priority," read Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, making her way through the hour-long, 6,000-word speech on the floor of a silent Senate chamber.

"Hope is borne on the wings of prosperity."

Familiar Harper themes of arctic sovereignty, national security, tougher sentencing for criminals, and Senate reform once again make up a substantial chunk of the speech.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called the recalibration a "regurgitation."

"They shut down Parliament for this?" he asked. "We just came out of the Olympics, the country is on a high, and what does the government offer us? A kind of sorry collection of a lot of old stuff they've been offering us for years."

Immediately after the throne speech, Ignatieff proposed a motion to establish a special Commons committee to look at whether the prime minister's power to prorogue Parliament should be limited.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the speech falls short in several areas, including no plan to create jobs or fight climate change.

Apart from a nod to international climate-change agreements the government is already working on, there are no new details on any efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

"They say that the climate-change issue is the most important issue facing us but then they don't outline any sort of a plan," Layton said.

"Given that they've had so many weeks without bothersome MPs asking them questions in the House, you'd think they could have come up with something better than this."

Ignatieff and his opposition colleagues also emphasized what is not in the speech: references to combating poverty, or the aging of the Canadian population.

Despite the rhetoric, an electoral stalemate between the Conservatives and Liberals all but guarantees neither of the main parties will try to trigger an election. A survey conducted Feb. 18-28 by The Canadian Press Harris Decima suggests the two main parties are deadlocked at 31 per cent each.

Where previous Conservative throne speeches were packed with cash for various programs or included expensive tax cuts, this one is markedly light on big-ticket items. But there are also no big spending cuts on the horizon.

The plan proposes a largely symbolic freeze on politicians' salaries and departmental operating budgets and - as expected - the taps will be turned off on stimulus spending once the final $19 billion has been handed out next fiscal year.

The proposed salary freeze is designed to show that the government is leading by example. It will apply to the prime minister, cabinet ministers, MPs and senators. MPs currently earn $158,000, while cabinet ministers make $233,000.

"Canadians live within their means and expect governments to do the same," Jean read. "Spending designed for a rainy day should not become an all-weather practice."

Many economists have warned that the government must raise taxes or cut spending to balance the budget. But the government has rejected that, saying it can balance the books by limiting spending as economic growth improves.

Declaring job creation the top priority, the Conservatives said they will focus on bringing more Canadian innovations to market and promote the adoption of new technologies.

They also plan to loosen investment rules in key sectors such as the telecommunications, satellite and uranium industries. They say it's designed to help recruit foreign talent and enhance Canada's international competitiveness, but critics fear it could open up the broadcast industry to foreign takeovers.

And the government says it will help the nuclear industry capitalize on the "global nuclear renaissance," beginning with a restructuring of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL). A source said the Conservatives are poised to earmark $400 million for that project in the budget.

"The relentless pace of technology means that every day there is something newer, faster, better," Jean read. "To succeed in the global economy, Canada must keep step as the world races forward."

Other measures are sure to inflame critics, including plans to cut environmental red tape for energy and mining companies.

Most of the speech is sprinkled with feel-good initiatives, some clearly directed at women, that are unlikely to rankle the opposition. Among them:

-A beefing up of monthly child-care cheques for single-parent families.

-A national strategy to combat childhood injuries.

-Unspecified action to address the unsolved cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women.

-A parliamentary examination of bringing gender neutrality to the national anthem.

In the area of law and order, the speech promised stiffer penalties for sexual offences against women and children. and for the most violent offenders.

Female voters are a key component of any electoral victory. The Conservatives have made inroads with women with policies such as tax credits for children's sporting activities and the universal child-care benefit.

"Every time the government is asked to do something real, it does something symbolic," said Ignatieff. "There are lots of things to do for women that are more important than changing the words of the national anthem."

The opposition intends to use the belated return of Parliament to focus on Harper's supposed character defects: his alleged lust for unrestrained power and his contempt for democratic institutions.

Apart from the proroagation issue, Liberal MP Derek Lee plans to challenge the government's refusal to hand over uncensored documents related to the alleged torture of Afghan detainees. He intends to ask Commons Speaker Peter Milliken to find the government in general - and Defence Minister Peter MacKay and a senior justice department official in particular - in contempt of Parliament.

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