The new Parliament in the UK opened today with Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech, also known as the Gracious Address or, less formally, as the Queen’s Speech. This is a parliamentary procedure common to all Commonwealth countries which still have the Queen as head of state, however it carries different names in different jurisdictions. For example, in Canada and its provinces, the speech is called the Speech from the Throne, or Throne Speech, and is usually read by the Governor General at the federal level and by the Lieutenant-Governor in the provinces. In Australia, it is simply called the “Opening Speech”, but is read by the Governor General (or Governor at the state level).
In both the UK and Canada (the only two jurisdictions I can comment on with any degree of familiarity), the Speech from the Throne is as much about pomp and tradition as it is the content of the Speech. Many would describe the proceedings as archaic; certainly their symbolism is lost to most. In the UK, the Queen proceeds in state to the House of Lords, where, seated on the Throne, wearing her crown and other regal ornaments, including a long, red, ermine-trimmed train, she commands Black Rod, through the Lord Great Chamberlain, to let the Commons know “it is Her Majesty’s pleasure they attend her immediately, in this House.” Black Rod then goes to the door of the House of Commons, which he strikes three times with his rod; and on being admitted, advances up the middle of the House towards the Table, making two obeisances to the chair and says “Mr. Speaker, the Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.” The Speaker and most MPs then head to the House of Lords. The Queen then reads her speech to both Houses of Parliament. Once read, the Queen departs, the House of Lords rises, and the Commons retire back to their House in order to begin the debate on the Address in Reply to the Queen’s Speech.
Proceedings in Canada, at least at the federal level, are almost as regal, and certainly as steeped in tradition.
The Governor General departs his or her official residence, Rideau Hall, for Parliament Hill. Like the Queen, whenever possible, this occurs in state – by way of a horse-drawn carriage, accompanied by four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, in full dress uniform. During inclement weather, the Governor General is driven in a regular car.
Upon arrival at the steps of the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings, the Governor General is invited to inspect the Canadian Armed Forces honour guard and a 21-gun salute is fired in the Governor General’s honour. After the inspection and salute, the Governor General and his or her spouse enters the Centre Block and is greeted by the Prime Minister and other government dignitaries. The assembled party then retires to the chambers of the Speaker of the Senate for final preparations. A few minutes before the Speech is to be delivered, a small processional of officials proceed to the Senate Chamber from the chambers of the Speaker of the Senate.
Why in the Senate? The Canadian Parliament was modelled on that of the United Kingdom. Both have an upper Chamber whose members are appointed, and a lower Chamber, the House of Commons, whose members are elected by the general population. In Canada, Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Since neither the Governor General nor Senators are allowed to enter the House of Commons, the Speech is given in the Senate Chamber.
The Usher of the Black Rod is then instructed to summon the Members of the House of Commons to hear the Speech from the Throne. He or she proceeds to the House of Commons and knocks on the door. The Sergeant-at-Arms of the House answers the door and asks the Speaker of the House for permission to let in the Usher of the Black Rod. The Speaker grants permission and the Sergeant picks up the Mace and escorts the Usher into the House. The Usher then informs the Members of the House that their presence is requested in the Senate. The Members of the House, led by the Speaker, Sergeant-at-Arms, and Usher of the Black Road, then proceed to the Senate Chamber.
The Speaker of the House then addresses the Governor General by an established formula stating that he or she has been elected by the House of Commons as Speaker and, for the Commons, “humbly claim[s] all their undoubted rights and privileges, especially that they may have freedom of speech in their debates, access to Your Excellency’s person at all seasonable times, and that their proceedings may receive from Your Excellency the most favourable construction”.
On behalf of the Governor General, the Speaker of the Senate replies with a similarly stylized affirmation, including that he or she “grants, and upon all occasions will recognize and allow their constitutional privileges”. This claiming of privileges, like many parliamentary ceremonies, has its origins in constitutional history when the Commons were fighting for their privileges in the face of royal tyranny in Britain: the first record there of such a claim dates from 1554.
Finally, the Governor General delivers the Speech from the Throne. Once the Speech has been delivered, and the Governor General has left the Senate Chamber, the leaders of the political parties with representation in the House of Commons talk to members of the media in the lobby outside the House of Commons to discuss their reactions to the Speech. A new Session of Parliament has begun and legislation begins to be introduced in both Houses of Parliament.
Suffice it to say, the pomp and ceremony is usually far more interesting than the actual Speech. Although read by the the sovereign or her representative, the speech is drafted by the Government of the day. In Canada at least, the Governor General is invited to contribute introductory material dealing with his or her own activities and with Royal visits – I am not certain if the Queen is granted this same opportunity (although I would assume she is). Traditionally, the Speech from the Throne reveals the reasons for summoning Parliament. It begins with an assessment of social and economic conditions in the country. It then declares the Government’s goals and intentions, and outlines its policies and legislative agenda. This agenda is presented in the most general of ways. The point of the Speech from the Throne is to focus on intents, not specifics. The details will be presented in the form of legislation tabled in the House during the session.
The Throne Speech is a key or confidence question; should the government lose the vote following the conclusion of the debate on the motion on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne, the government would be defeated. In Canada at least, no government has ever been defeated on its Throne Speech. The reasoning is simply that the content of the speech does not present any concrete proposals; therefore, it would be premature to defeat a government on an outline of its intentions.
As I stated, many consider the ceremony surrounding the Speech from the Throne very archaic. It is. However, on a personal level, that is what I love about it. Without such historic trappings, the affair would be terribly dull. I stated at the outset that much of the symbolism of the proceeding is lost to most, which is unfortunate. They evolved from important stages in the evolution of our parliamentary democracy, and that alone is reason enough to embrace the ceremonial pomp.
Following the Speech, there is another important tradition that is carried out – the introduction of the first Bill. In the Canadian House of Commons, this is traditionally An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office. This is a dummy bill, never heard of again until the opening of the next session. It is introduced to reassert the House of Commons’ right to discuss any business it sees fit before considering the Speech from the Throne. This right was first asserted by the English House of Commons more than 300 years ago, and is reasserted there every session by a similar pro forma bill. In the UK House of Commons, the first bill is A Bill for the more effectual preventing clandestine Outlawries, usually referred as the Outlawries Bill.
This formal reassertion of an ancient right of the Commons has been of very great practical use in Canada more than once. In 1950, for example, a nationwide railway strike demanded immediate action by Parliament. So the moment the House came back from the Senate Chamber, the prime minister introduced Bill C-1, but this time, it was no dummy; it was a bill to end the strike and send the railway workers back to work, and it was put through all its stages, passed by both houses, and received Royal Assent before either house considered the Speech from the Throne at all. Had it not been for the traditional assertion of the right of the Commons to do anything it saw fit before considering the speech, this essential emergency legislation would have been seriously delayed.
Is this pro forma bill really necessary anymore? Probably not. Certainly, here in Canada, the Governor General would have no recourse against a government that opted to debate some other measure before considering the Speech from the Throne. However, the importance of Bill 1 lies in its symbolism – reminding the Crown that it is the will of the people (or at least, their elected representatives) that matters.