Some notable parliamentary traditions

Parliamentary traditions and procedure in Canada and the United Kingdom are very similar, which is not at all surprising since Canada largely adopted the same form of parliamentary government, with slight modifications to better accommodate the realities of a federation. While some of these conventions and traditions might strike many as quaint and anachronistic, they are still practiced out of homage to the long fight for Parliament’s independence from the Crown.

For example, the tradition that a newly-elected Speaker should “resist” being led up to the Speaker’s Chair is simply an acknowledgement to the past, when the role of Speaker was often a very dangerous one. Indeed, several Speakers were executed by the Monarch for being bearers of news the Monarch didn’t want to hear. Consequently, many were reluctant to take on the role of Speaker, knowing its inherent dangers. Today’s Speakers pay tribute to their courage and, in some cases, sacrifice, by feigning reluctance to take the Chair.

While many such traditions are practiced both at Westminster and on Parliament Hill, there are other traditions which never managed to cross the Atlantic.

One such example involves the Queen’s Speech – what Canadians call the Speech from the Throne or Throne Speech. In the UK, a Government Whip is held “hostage” at Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Speech in order to guarantee the safe return of the Monarch. This tradition naturally harkens back to times when the relationship between the Monarch and the House of Commons wasn’t on the best of terms. In Canada, this does not occur, although it would be quaint indeed if the Government Whip were to be held at Rideau Hall pending the safe return of the Governor General.

Other historical “precautions” are observed for the Queen’s Speech. The Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest of the royal bodyguards, armed with lanterns, search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a practice which dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605. The Gunpowder Plot is the name given to the conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605, which was discovered the night before. You can read more about the Gunpowder Plot here. This is followed by a more scientific police search.

While the basement of the Parliament Building in Ottawa isn’t searched by the Yeomen of the Guard, I am fairly certain that a thorough security sweep is performed by the RCMP prior to the Speech from the Throne in Ottawa, not in memory of the Gunpowder Plot, but simply because such security measures are warranted for such an event.

The Queen’s Speech/Speech from the Throne isn’t the only parliamentary procedure steeped in tradition. In the United Kingdom, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers the Budget statement, the Speaker leaves the chair to be replaced by the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Deputy Speaker. This is a procedure which dates back several hundred years to the days when the Commons did not want its Speaker presiding over debates on money matters because he was seen as a creature of the King. This does not occur in Canada – the Speaker presides over the Budget Speech.

Another Budget-related tradition from the UK which isn’t observed in Canada: the Chancellor is the only MP allowed to drink alcohol in the House of Commons, on Budget day. Previous Chancellors have chosen whisky (Kenneth Clarke), gin and tonic (Geoffrey Howe), brandy and water (Benjamin Disraeli), sherry and beaten egg (Gladstone) and spritzer (Nigel Lawson). Gordon Brown chose to drink mineral water. Alistair Darling and George Osborne also drank water.

HM Treasury
Chancellor with Budget Box, HM Treasury

In the UK, the Chancellor has his Budget Box, the red, leather-covered box containing the Budget Speech. Traditionally the Chancellor is photographed on Budget day on the steps of 11 Downing Street holding up the Budget Box. In Canada, the Finance minister traditionally buys a new pair of shoes for the Budget. This practice isn’t as ingrained as the UK tradition of the Chancellor being photographed with his or her Budget Box, however. The observance of this tradition has been inconsistent among federal ministers; indeed, for two or three finance ministers, this tradition only holds if “new shoes” is interpreted to mean “new footwear”.

Another difference regarding the Budget Speech concerns the budget lock-up. In Canada, members of the media as well as Opposition MPs are sequestered hours before the budget speech and briefed on the contents of the budget. This is in part to ensure that the details of the budget do not leak out before the document is tabled in the House, but also to help both the media and opposition familarise themselves with the contents of the budget. This allows the media to be able to report on it as soon as the media ban is lifted, and helps the Opposition prepare a detailed response to the budget.

In the UK, there is no budget lock-up. The Opposition are not privy to the contents of the budget ahead of time. Indeed, they learn of the contents of the budget as the Chancellor delivers his or her statement to the House. It is often said that making the very first response to the Budget statement, which is the task of the Leader of the Opposition, is one of the hardest speaking jobs in the House, because he or she has no idea what will be in what is arguably the most important Government statement made during the Parliamentary Session.  Indeed, if one watches the statement being made, one will see the Opposition front bench furiously making notes to help the Leader craft what he is going to say, as soon as the Chancellor finishes.  The media are in the same position, although of course in the run up to the Budget, there is very often indication in the press that some form of private briefing may have been given to select journalists on individual measures that might be in the statement.

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