On Speeches from the Throne and Prorogation

As is often the case – if you follow the right people! – a very interesting discussion transpired on Twitter over the matter of Speeches from the Throne and prorogation.

For the uninitiated, prorogation is, normally, a very mundane parliamentary procedure used to bring to an end one session of a Parliament so that a new session can begin.

If you read my post explaining the differences between a parliament, a session and a sitting, you will recall that a parliament lasts from one election until it is dissolved for a new election. In Canada, this tends to be about four years, with a constitutional maximum duration of five years. After an election, the new parliament begins with a Speech from the Throne, wherein the Government will outline what it hopes to achieve during the upcoming session. Once the Government feels it has achieved the goals it identified in the Speech from the Throne, it may decide to prorogue that session – bring it to an end – and start a new session with a new Speech from the Throne identifying new goals and priorities. Sometimes, a Government might feel a need to prorogue because circumstances may have changed since the last Speech from the Throne. Perhaps the global (or domestic) economy has dramatically changed – such as occurred in 2008. The Government may realize that it won’t be able to carry out some of the initiatives it had promised in the Throne Speech; or it might believe a new budget is required. There are many legitimate reasons why a Government would want to bring one session to an end and start afresh with a new one.

In Canada, there is no set number of sessions per parliament, nor is there any maximum or minimum length set out for the duration of a session. Some parliaments have had only one session, a couple have had seven. The shortest session lasted 0 days (18th parliament, 6th session, 1940), the longest (to date) ran 1,325 days (32nd Parliament, 1st session, 1980-83 – note that this is the total number of calendar days from the opening of the session to prorogation; it is not the total number of sitting days, which was 591 for the House of Commons and 329 for the Senate). You can compare the length and number of sessions of each parliament here.

Because the Canadian parliament doesn’t have a tradition of regularly-timed prorogation, the Government’s agenda as outlined in the Speech from the Throne tends to be very general. It may sometimes identify a few key priorities that it hopes to achieve, but for the most part, the Speech from the Throne is long on rhetoric and short on specifics. This isn’t the case in other countries, however. Many legislatures prorogue annually, and usually for a very short time, sometimes less than a day. It is not uncommon to have the legislature prorogue in the morning and a new session start in the afternoon. The UK parliament prorogues annually in the spring, for about two weeks. Because of this, the Queen’s Speech in the UK tends to be very short and quite specific when compared to Canadian Speeches from the Throne, as I explained in this post. The Government of the day will put forward a list of bills it plans to introduce and there is none of the rather pointless rhetoric extolling the virtues of the Government one finds in Canadian Throne Speeches.

Against this background, you will now appreciate the following discussion which occurred on Twitter. Former Canadian House of Commons procedural clerk Thomas Hall (@ThomasHall17) asked a simple question: “Are Throne Speeches outdated relics of the past? They were supposed to set out the Government’s agenda, but this is no longer really true.” He elaborated, explaining that if we got rid of all throne speeches except the one after an election, the “issue” of prorogations would also disappear.

Emmett Macfarlane (@EmmMacfarlane), a professor at the University of Waterloo disagreed, arguing that they still provided a good outline of the government’s main objectives, to which Hall replied that this could be achieved by other means – such as a ministerial statement in the House, for example, like the Budget Speech.

Professor Philippe Lagassé (@pmlagasse) pointed out that constitutionally, the Speech from the Throne highlights where the ministry’s authority flows from, and that it is a helpful symbol that the executive operates independently of Parliament, but must account to Parliament. Hall acknowledged that this was a good point, that symbols are important. What Lagassé means is that the ministry’s authority comes from the Crown. The constitutional and parliamentary nature of prorogation is described in the following passage from Erskine May (24th ed., p. 144):

The prorogation of Parliament is a prerogative act of the Crown. Just as Parliament can commence its deliberations only at the time appointed by the Queen, so it cannot continue them any longer than she pleases.

At this point in the discussion, E (@freezingkiwi) commented on Hall’s suggestion of having only the one Throne Speech at the start of a new parliament, noting that this was the common approach elsewhere – it was just to set the agenda at the start of each new Parliament. He added that he didn’t recall any mid-Parliament Throne Speeches in New Zealand.

The norm in both Australia and New Zealand is one Throne Speech (or Governor-General’s Speech as it is called in Australia) and only one session per Parliament. This is in large part because, unlike Canada and the UK, parliaments in Australia and New Zealand last only three years. And because of this, prorogation – while still a procedural option available to governments in both countries – has largely disappeared in practice. As explained in House of Representatives Practice (5th ed., chapter 7), Australian Parliaments have often consisted of only one session without a prorogation intervening, and this is now the norm:

The history of the Australian Parliament in respect of prorogations is marked by inconsistency. In 1957 the Leader of the House stated that in future annual sessions of Parliament would be held, and this practice continued until the end of 1961. Subsequently, the division of a Parliament into more than one session by means of regular prorogations appears to have been regarded as either inconvenient or unnecessary.

This isn’t to say that prorogation doesn’t occur, but it occurs only when necessary, usually triggered by an extraordinary event. There have been only four prorogations in Australia since 1961, each one occurring for a very specific reason:

  • the 1968 prorogation followed the death of Prime Minister Holt and the formation of a new Ministry;
  • the 1970 prorogation was caused by a general election being held on 25 October 1969, resulting in the Parliament being forced to meet, under section 5 of the Constitution, prior to Christmas; the Parliament met for one sitting day but the Government found that it was not able to have the Governor-General announce fully its proposed program at that time; the program was announced at the opening of the second session; and
  • the Parliament was prorogued in 1974 and 1977 to enable the Queen to open the new session in each case.

The situation is very similar in New Zealand, which reduced the maximum length of its parliaments from 5 years to 3 years in 1879. As explained in McGee’s Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (chapter 9):

Until 1984 there was usually one session of Parliament held in each calendar year during the course of each Parliament; though there were occasionally more than this when a special session was held, as in 1977 on the occasion of the visit of Her Majesty the Queen. It was exceptional for a session (like the ones of 1921–22 and 1941–42, for example) to extend over more than one calendar year. Since the 1984 session was brought to an end for a snap election, sessions have been more variable and lengthier. There were, for example, only two sessions in each of the three Parliaments after that. Since 1984 there has no longer been a presumption that a session will correspond with a calendar year. Since the forty-fourth Parliament (1993–1996) there has been only a single session lasting the entire life of the Parliament and this has now become the norm.

If the maximum duration of a Parliament is only three years, there is little need for more than one session to be held. It would be much easier for a governing party to put forward a legislative agenda to cover roughly 2.5 years – Canadian governments do that fairly regularly.However, if Canada, with its 4-5 year parliaments, followed the UK Parliament’s example and prorogued annually, that would force the Government to deliver far more focused Throne Speeches. If each session lasted only a year, then the Government would have to outline very specific initiatives it planned to bring forward during the course of that year.

However, the Canadian Parliament does not prorogue annually. The reality is that, at the start of a new Parliament, the Government has no idea how long the session will last. It could be a year, it could be two, it could last the entire parliament. This is why Canadian Throne Speeches take the form they do – favouring vagueness over specifics.

I personally would prefer annual sessions and prorogations – of a short duration (e.g. a few days or certainly no longer than the two weeks the UK Parliament usually stands prorogued). This would force the Government to be more focused and specific in what it hoped to achieve, and probably make it easier for the Opposition to hold them to account. I don’t think doing away with Throne Speeches over the course of a four to five year Parliament is a good idea. Inevitably, the Government will need to reset itself at some point during that time. Alternatively, shorten the duration of a Parliament to three years like Australia and New Zealand. A three-year Parliament would work fine with only one session, meaning one Speech from the Throne and, most likely, an end to prorogation (unless absolutely necessary given some extraordinary event).

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Sittings, sessions and parliaments

This post will explain what is meant by the terms “a parliament”, “a session” and “a sitting”.

A parliament can refer to an institution, e.g. the Parliament of Canada, but it also refers to the period of time during which the institution of Parliament exercises its powers. A parliament, at least in the UK and Canada, does not exceed five years. A parliament begins with the proclamation of the Sovereign (UK) or Governor General (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) calling for the formation of a new Parliament and setting the dates for a new election and the day the new Parliament will first meet. A Parliament ends with the proclamation announcing its dissolution.

As stated, traditionally and constitutionally, a Parliament does not exceed five years. Some legislatures have introduced fixed-term election legislation which sets the life of a parliament at four years. A parliament can end before the four or five year limit, however. If the government of the day loses the confidence of the House, and no other government can be formed to take its place, the parliament will be dissolved. This happens most frequently during times of single-party minority government.

A session is a period of time between the summoning of a Parliamentand its prorogation. How many sessions are there during the course of a single Parliament? That can vary. Some legislatures prorogue regularly, every fall or spring. The UK Parliament prorogues every spring, usually in May, and begins a new session a couple of weeks later. In Canada, the federal Parliament does not follow this tradition; consequently, there is no set length for or number of sessions during a single Parliament. The number of sessions have ranged from one to seven. Each new session begins with a Speech from the Throne.

During each session of Parliament, there are a number of sittings. The Standing Orders will usually provide the times and days for the sittings of a legislature. For example, the Canadian House of Commons normally sits five days a week (but not every week) as follows:

Mon: 11:00-18:30
Tue: 10:00-18:30
Wed: 14:00-18:30
Thu: 10:00-18:30
Fri: 10:00-14:30

It is important to note, however, that a sitting does not necessarily equal a calendar day. There can be two sittings in a single day, or a single sitting can last more than one day. To extend a sitting, the House has to agree to a motion to do so. These motions can be moved by Ministers as well as Members. Similarly, sittings which last more than one day are rare, and occur mainly as the result of events such as filibustering by the opposition parties; a motion to extend the sitting beyond the normal adjournment in order to consider a specific item of business; to continue an emergency or take-note debate past the normal hour of adjournment; to complete all remaining stages of a bill, or to allow all Members wishing to do so to speak on an item; and to hold recorded divisions at the report stage of a bill.

To summarize, a single Parliament will have or one or more sessions, and each session will have a number of sittings.

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Prorogation Ceremony

Canadians are used to thinking of prorogation of Parliament as something rather secretive, done behind closed doors. Because of this, it might be of interest to some to actually watch a prorogation ceremony as it recently unfolded in the UK House of Lords.

Prorogation is the formal ending of a session of Parliament, either by a special ceremony held in the upper chamber or by the Queen’s or a Governor General’s proclamation to that effect. Prorogation also refers to the period of time a Parliament stands prorogued. Prorogation is a routine procedure. Some legislatures prorogue every year, others more infrequently. The UK Parliament prorogues in May because in 2010, following the general election held in May of that year, the Leader of the House announced the Government’s intention to move towards five 12-month sessions over a Parliament, beginning and ending in the spring.

For this particular prorogation ceremony, the Queen was not present, therefore it was done by the Lord Commissioners. The video includes commentary by the BBC, explaining what is going on.

Any bill that is not passed before prorogation is dropped, apart from Public Bills that have had a carry-over motion passed; in this instance debate can continue into the next session.

The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod summons MPs to attend the House of Lords to witness outstanding acts being given royal assent. By ancient tradition the legislation is given royal assent in Norman French using the words “La Reyne le veult”, which roughly translates as “the Queen wills it”.

At the end of the ceremony, it is customary for MPs to shake the hand of the Commons Speaker as they file out of the chamber.

In Canada, traditionally, a similar ceremony was observed, with the House of Commons summoned to the Senate to hear the Governor General (or the Deputy of the Governor General) deliver a speech reviewing the accomplishments of the session, and to hear the Speaker of the Senate read a message containing the date for the opening of the new session. Prorogation has not taken place in this manner since 1983. Current procedure in Canada is for prorogation by proclamation published in the Canada Gazette.

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