What is a Speech from the Throne?

December 4, 2015
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What is a Speech from the Throne?
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The Throne Speech in Ten Steps

Every new session of Parliament begins with a Speech from the Throne. Until the Speech is delivered, no parliamentary business may be conducted by either the Senate or the House of Commons. Like many parliamentary traditions, the ceremony is rich with symbolism and serves as an important reminder of our nation’s constitutional past and our values. To better understand its meaning and significance, we’ve laid out the ten chronological steps of the Throne Speech and associated ceremonial and parliamentary tradition.

1. The Governor General travels to Parliament from his residence at Rideau Hall. Upon arriving, the Governor General inspects the Guard of Honour mounted by the Canadian Armed Forces while the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery fires a 21-gun salute to His Excellency.

The Guard of Honour reminds us that the Governor General is Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces. This aspect of the ceremonial emphasizes the nature of the Opening as a State occasion. The military ceremonial shows respect for the new Parliament and its members through the participation of the Crown’s representative.

Following the ceremonial, the Governor General is then greeted by the Prime Minister and other parliamentary dignitaries.

Why is the Speech delivered by the Governor General?

Parliament consists of the Queen, the Senate and the House of Commons, and meets only at the “Royal summons” of the Queen signified by her representative. Normally, the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, delivers the Speech announcing the reasons Parliament has been summoned and outlines the legislative programme of the Government for the upcoming session. In the absence of the Governor General, the Administrator of the Government (the Chief Justice) reads the Speech.

2. Led by the Usher of the Black Rod, a procession makes its way into the Senate Chamber after a brief pause in the Speaker’s Apartment to ensure all is in readiness. The procession includes the Governor General and his or her spouse, the Prime Minister, along with other officials such as the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Commissioner of the RCMP and Aides-de-Camp to the Governor General.

As the procession enters the Senate Chamber, the Senators (maximum 105, with 22 vacancies at present) are seated in their seats. The Chief Justice and Puisne Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada sit in the centre aisle facing the dais with two thrones and often many invited guests are also present such as Privy Councillors, diplomats and other dignitaries as well as special guests attend the Speech. The ceremony gets its name because the Governor General reads the speech from the chair or throne which is reserved for the Sovereign, our Head of State.

Why is the Speech delivered in the Senate?

Our Parliament was modelled on that of the United Kingdom, where neither the Sovereign nor the members of the upper chamber may enter the chamber of the House of Commons in order to preserve the independence of the House and its business. The Speech is therefore given in the Senate, which is decorated in royal red after the British House of Lords.

The Senate of Canada (at left) and its British forebearer, the House of Lords (at right)

3. The Senate Speaker asks the Usher of the Black Rod to proceed to the House of Commons, on command of the Governor General, to invite Members of the House of Commons (MPs) to the Senate Chamber.

As personal messenger of the Queen or Governor General, the Usher of the Black Rod is instructed to summon the Members of the House of Commons to hear the Speech. As the Usher walks the corridor connecting the Senate and House chambers, he or she passes portraits of former Prime Ministers.

The Usher holds the most senior ceremonial position in Parliament and is responsible for security within the Senate Chamber. While the position originated more than 600 years ago, the Usher’s current responsibilities combine traditional, ceremonial and modern administrative functions. Previously referred to as “Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod,” the title was changed in 1997 when the first woman was appointed to the position. The name comes from the ebony cane that the Usher carries as a symbol of the Crown’s authority to summon and to act as its messenger and attendant.

4. The Usher knocks on the House of Commons door, which alerts the Sergeant-at-Arms that there is a messenger from the Senate who wishes to convey the Governor General’s invitation to Members of the House of Commons to attend the Speech.

The Sergeant-at-Arms preserves order in the Chamber of the House of Commons. Under the direction of the Speaker, the Sergeant-at-Arms also has other administrative responsibilities and represents the House of Commons in ensuring the overall security within the Parliamentary precinct as well as building services.

His or her ceremonial duties involve carrying the House of Commons mace during the Speaker’s procession. A large and heavy sceptre, the gold mace symbolizes the authority of the Speaker and the right conferred on the Commons by the Crown to meet and debate laws. The mace in use today dates from 1917 and replaced the original House of Commons mace that was destroyed in the Centre Block fire of 1916.

5. Members of the House of Commons proceed to the Senate (led by the Usher of the Black Rod, the Sergeant-at-Arms and the House Speaker) where they assemble behind the bar at the entrance to the Senate Chamber.

The MPs assemble in the Senate antechamber and lobby outside the Senate Chamber but cannot pass beyond the brass bar. They must therefore crowd together at the back of the chamber to listen to the Speech, with an obstructed view for some. There is a similar bar in the House which neither the Queen (or her representative) nor non-elected individuals may cross. No monarch has entered the House of Commons since 1642 and this is observed throughout the realms of the Commonwealth.

At the first session in a new Parliament, on behalf of MPs, the Speaker introduces him or herself after his or her election and asks that the Crown recognize MPs’ rights and privileges, including freedom of speech during debates. This has its origins in constitutional history from the 16th century, when the Commons were fighting for their privileges in the face of tyrannical monarchs.

The Speaker is an MP who is elected by other MPs to ensure the rules and traditions of the House of Commons, both written and unwritten are applied impartially and also maintains order and defends the rights and privileges of Members.

6. On behalf of the Governor General, the Senate Speaker responds to the House Speaker.

The Governor General recognizes the constitutional rights and privileges of the Speaker and the MPs, and grants  access to him or her for the Speaker. This formally recognizes the election of the Speaker by the Crown and confirms the rights of the Commons to meet and debate matters freely and affirms that it continues to enjoy the confidence of the Crown.

7. The Speech from the Throne commences!

With the Prime Minister seated to one side, the Governor General is then handed the Speech and reads it aloud. As a sign of respect and courtesy, it is considered poor form for the guests or the Senators or MPs present to clap or boo during the Speech.

The Speech from the Throne explains why Parliament has been called. The Speech outlines the Government’s legislative agenda and priorities for the upcoming session while also indicating the Government’s plans with respect to executive prerogatives such as foreign affairs, defence and other policies. It announces a broad statement of what the Government intends to do. The reading of the Speech is required for the opening of every new session of Parliament. The government of the day writes the Speech while the Governor General may be invited to contribute an introductory paragraph.

The Governor General wears the insignia of the Order of Canada of which the Governor General is Chancellor and Principal Companion. It features a hexagonal snowflake design and is Canada’s highest civilian honour. Its motto reads “Desiderantes meliorem patriam,” Latin for “They desire a better country.”

The insignia of a Companion of the Order of Canada

In the United Kingdom, the corresponding speech is called the “Queen’s Speech” and is given annually for each session of Parliament. In Australia, it’s known as “the Governor General’s Speech” and normally happens every 3 years as most Australian Parliaments only have one session in each Parliament.

On October 14th, 1957, during her first visit to Canada as its Sovereign, and for the first time in Canadian history, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opened the First Session of the 23rd Parliament. Watch newsreel of this momentous event here. The Queen also opened the 3rd session of the 30th Parliament on October 18th, 1977.

The Queen reads the Speech from the Throne on October 14th, 1957

There have been 146 Throne Speeches since Confederation. Read them all here.

8. Following the delivery of the Speech, the Secretary to the Governor General formally provides the official text of the Speech to the Speaker of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Commons respectively.

Once the sittings of their chambers resume following the speech, the Speakers may either read the speech into the record or the members may agree that it be printed in Hansard, the official record of debates in each House.

9. Members of the House of Commons, led by their Speaker, exit the Senate and return to the House of Commons Chamber to begin official proceedings.

Once the sittings resume, and before proceeding to the consideration of the Speech from the Throne, both the Senate and the House gives first reading to a pro forma Bill. Typically, the Bill receives first reading but is not proceeded with any further during the session. Its purpose is to assert the independence of each House and its right to choose its own business and to deliberate without reference to the agenda outlined by the Crown in the Speech from the Throne. This ritual act of independence has existed as a practice  since before Confederation. It originated in the British House of Commons in 1558.

Following the pro forma bill, the Prime Minister moves a motion for the Speech from the Throne to be considered. Two MPs selected by the government move and second respectively an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne. This offers the thanks of the House of Commons to the Governor General for the Speech. This allows for wide-ranging debate on the government policies announced in the Throne Speech, thus providing an opportunity for Members to address topics of their choice.

The vote on the Address in Reply is the first opportunity for the House to express its judgment as to whether the government has the confidence of the members. Opposition members often propose amendments to the Address which express their concerns with government policy or proposed legislation throughout the debate which can last a maximum of six days.

10. A new session of Parliament officially begins!

With the pro forma bill and Address in Reply officially moved the ceremonial associated with the Opening of Parliament is complete and routine business as outlined in the Standing Orders in each house begins.

Just another day on Parliament Hill

A special thank you to Richard Berthelsen for contributing to this post. Richard was a career public servant in both the Governments of Canada and of Ontario and now acts as a consultant to governments and the media on constitutional matters, royal protocol, machinery of government and honours. He served as Private Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1998-2003 and was previously at the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General as a Policy Officer from 1990-1998.

Additional information was provided by the Government of Canada.

For more facts and stats about the Speech, check out this infographic from the Senate of Canada.

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