Opening of Parliament: Speech from the Throne (Canada)

Note: What follows is an explanation of what is the Speech from the Throne. If you are looking for an analysis of the contents of the most recent Throne Speech, this blog does not do that sort of post. There is plenty of analysis of the contents of the Throne Speech available on media websites such as the Globe and Mail, Macleans.ca, Toronto Star, etc. Please read the “About” page for more information about current blogging policy.)

(The Speech from the Throne to open the 1st session of the 41st Parliament was read on Friday, 3 June 2011 at 3:00 p.m. ET.)

Following the election of the Speaker, the next order of business for a new Parliament is the Speech from the Throne.

The Speech from the Throne is not unique to the opening of Parliament, as is the case with the election of the Speaker and the swearing in of Members. The opening of a session – whether it is the first or a subsequent session – is marked by the reading of the Speech from the Throne.

The Speech from the Throne is steeped in tradition and a very regal proceeding. The Governor General departs his or her official residence, Rideau Hall, for Parliament Hill. 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 enter the Centre Block and are 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 proceeds 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.

An interesting side note concerning the tradition that the Crown is not allowed to enter the elected Chamber. In provincial legislatures, since there is no upper chamber, the Lieutenant Governor is allowed to enter the Chamber to read the Speech from the Throne because the House is not in session during the reading – the Mace is not on the table.

The Usher of the Black Rod of the Senate of Canada (the most senior protocol position in the Parliament of Canada) 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.

At the Bar of the Senate, the newly-elected Speaker stands on a small platform, removes his or her hat and receives an acknowledgement from the Governor General, who is seated on the Throne. The Speaker addresses the Governor General by an established formula, as follows:

May it please Your Excellency,

The House of Commons has elected me their Speaker, though I am but little able to fulfil the important duties thus assigned to me. If, in the performance of those duties, I should at any time fall into error, I pray that the fault may be imputed to me, and not to the Commons, whose servant I am, and who, through me, the better to enable them to discharge their duty to their Queen (King) and Country, humbly claim 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.

The Speaker of the Senate, on behalf of the Governor General, makes the traditional reply:

Mr. Speaker, I am commanded by His (Her) Excellency the Governor General to declare to you that he (she) freely confides in the duty and attachment of the House of Commons to Her Majesty’s Person and Government, and not doubting that their proceedings will be conducted with wisdom, temper and prudence, he (she) grants, and upon all occasions will recognize and allow, their constitutional privileges. I am commanded also to assure you that the Commons shall have ready access to His (Her) Excellency upon all seasonable occasions and that their proceedings, as well as your words and actions, will constantly receive from him (her) the most favourable construction.

The claiming of privileges by the Speaker on behalf of the House occurs only at the opening of a Parliament, and is not repeated in the event a Speaker is elected during the course of a Parliament. 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. After the claiming of privilege, the session is formally opened by the reading of the Speech from the Throne.

Traditionally, in Canada, the Governor General reads the Speech from the Throne (at the provincial level, this is done by the Lieutenant Governor). However, it can also be read by the Monarch (as occurred in 1957 and 1977), or by the Administrator, the Chief Justice of Canada. This occurs only in the event of the death, incapacity, removal or absence from the country of the Governor General.

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 the federal level 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. After hearing the Speech, the Speaker and Members return to the House. If the session is the first of a new Parliament, the newly-elected Speaker will have made the traditional statement claiming for the House all its “undoubted rights and privileges”. This is reported by the Speaker to the House on returning from the Senate. The business for the day’s sitting then proceeds.

_____________
*I know of one provincial government which was defeated on the Throne Speech, and that was the minority Progressive Conservative government in Ontario in 1985. The Opposition parties successfully passed an amendment to the Throne Speech, which meant the Government had lost the confidence of the House.

Related Posts:

Radical Centrist

  • Guest

    Funny, I had always thought that George VI had been the first monarch to read the Speech from the Throne in Ottawa, during the 1939 royal visit.  But upon reading this blog post, I looked it up, and he apparently “merely” gave Royal Assent to bills while in the Canadian Senate chamber.

    • There was a bit of a brouhaha in Alberta in 2005, during a royal visit – the Government of Alberta had wanted the Queen to give royal assent to a few bills, but the Governor General’s office rejected that as being against the “Canadianization” of the Crown. Kenneth Munro, a professor at the University of Alberta and former member of the Household at Rideau Hall, felt that the thinking at Government House in Ottawa was both politically and legally unfounded, seeing it as an attempt by the federal government and Rideau Hall to elevate the position of Governor General.Richard Toporoski, a professor at the University of Toronto, saw the denial of the sovereign’s granting of Royal Assent as correct, stating that, by the Constitution Act, 1867, the Queen does not form a part of the provincial legislatures.

  • Pingback: Craig Scott did not enjoy the Throne Speech - Beyond The Commons, Capital Read - Macleans.ca()