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The Speech from the Throne and the Dignity of the Crown



The Speech from the Throne and the Dignity of the Crown Richard Berthelsen When the Governor General or a Lieutenant Governor opens a session of Parliament or a Legislature with the Throne Speech, do the words which are written by the government of the day confuse members of the public as to the objectivity or partisanship of the Crown’s representative? Do some speeches go beyond outlining the legislative plans for the session and become political manifestos or try to score points against other governments or opposition parties? What are the present practices of the Throne Speech in Canada and in other realms? Is there a better way for this constitutional function to be discharged which enhances the dignity of the Crown and its representatives? The ceremonies surrounding the Opening of Parliament in a Commonwealth realm are a physical manifestation of the roles of the Crown-in-Parliament and Crown-in-Council simultaneously. In the Crown Commonwealth, only the Queen or her representatives can summon parliament and impart the causes for summoning it, by reading the Speech from the Throne (or Queen’s speech in the UK). The Speech from the Throne is drafted by Ministers. The Crown’s representative appears to legislators and to the wider public in parliamentary grandeur while at the same time as the messenger of the government’s legislative plan for the upcoming session. Given the importance to the Crown of appearing politically neutral, the current practice in several jurisdictions may be confusing to some and infringe on the dignity of the office by bringing the Crown into the political realm. It is the only speech given by a Governor General or Lieutenant Governor which is political in nature and stands out from other pronouncements in which care is taken to speak on behalf of all, rather than just the government of the day. In this paper, Richard Berthelsen examines Speeches from the Throne in Canada and other Commonwealth realms, compares practices and looks at various developments over the years. In particular, the paper will review the approach as it has evolved in Quebec where the Lieutenant Governor and Premier share the role. In addition, the paper looks at how the Speech infringes on the dignity of the Crown’s representatives and identifies alternatives within the existing constitutional framework to enhance the apolitical nature of the role of the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors.
The Speech from the Throne and the Dignity of the Crown
Richard Berthelsen
I greet you as your Queen. Together we constitute the Parliament of Canada.
For the first time the representatives of the people of Canada and their
Sovereign are here assembled on the occasion of the opening of Parliament.
This is for all of us a moment to remember.
—Speech from the Throne, 23rd Parliament of Canada, 1st session, 14 October 1957
Regularly, in Ottawa a great ceremony takes place—a time honoured scene, a moment of
splendour. It is the opening of Parliament.
—Jacques Monet, The Canadian Crown1
The opening of Parliament in a Commonwealth realm manifests the Crown-in-Parliament and
Crown-in-Council simultaneously. Bagehot described it as a moment born of the symbolic,
“dignified” part of the constitution, but one that also demonstrates the “efficient” part, that is, the
way in which government actually works.2 In the Crown Commonwealth, only the Queen or her
representatives can “declare the causes for summoning parliament” by reading the speech from
the throne.3 The speech is drafted by ministers, their staff and civil servants, but the Crown’s
representative reads it to parliamentarians. There is an inherent contradiction in this exercise,
given the parliamentary and ceremonial grandeur around the throne speech and its use as a
vehicle for outlining and advocating the government’s policies and legislative plan for the new
session. The speech is also the only public statement delivered by a governor general, governor,
or lieutenant governor that steps into the policy or political realm and where the Crown speaks
for the government of the day as opposed to the state.
The wording of the speech from the throne in various parliaments has evolved
considerably over recent decades, with jurisdictions borrowing characteristics from one another.
In many Commonwealth parliaments, throne speeches have developed into political manifestos.
Some attempt to settle scores with previous governments or with opposition parties, while others
identify provincial perspectives on federal government policy. The pronouns employed in throne
speeches can be befuddling. In Canada the traditional term “My Government” has become “The
Government” or “Your Government” and recently, “Our Government.” There is an increasing
use of “we” to describe actions by governments in some speeches, which could lead listeners to
question both the Crown’s impartiality and whether it is an active part of the executive. The shift
in these pronouns and the use of the speech as a political statement increasingly appear to
infringe upon the dignity of the Crown. Given the increasing public expectation, particularly in
Canada, that vice-regal representatives speak for all citizens and avoid political issues, the
speech from the throne can confuse members of the public as to the objectivity or partisanship of
the Crown’s representative.
In his 1989 article “Depoliticizing the Speech from the Throne,” former federal cabinet
minister Mitchell Sharp suggested that the speech had “been converted from its original purpose
into a vehicle of government propaganda.” He brought attention to trends, in terms of length and
partisanship, that undermined the Crown and the purpose of this parliamentary event.
Sharp noted that the speech from the throne was delivered by “a political neutral [who]
has to read words like these with as little emotion as possible, thus robbing them of any
inspirational impact.” Notwithstanding his own attempts as a minister in two governments to
shorten the throne speech, Sharp concluded that it had become much longer over time and that as
a public relations exercise the throne speech was “a dud, an overnight celebrity, quickly
forgotten.” He also went on to measure the length and grade the content of recent Canadian
speeches. He considered whether they provided a “factual, non-argumentative description of
impending policies and legislation” and whether the speech would better have been delivered by
the first minister or a cabinet member. The average length of the twelve speeches he reviewed
was 4,244 words. Four speeches received the grade of B and seven received Cs. The only speech
to receive an A came, perhaps surprisingly, from Quebec. Not only did it have the most benign
content, but it was also the shortest speech, at just under 3,000 words. 4
This chapter examines how the speeches have evolved since Sharp wrote his critique. My
review of the recent federal and provincial throne speeches almost a quarter-century later found
that, while the average number of words per speech has remained around 4,300, Quebec now
makes do with less than 900 words. A number of excerpts given in this chapter suggest that the
issues raised by Sharp have become more pronounced over the past twenty years. While I did not
rate or grade the speeches according to Sharp’s scale, I did note a troubling variety of approaches
on the use of the pronouns (e.g., my, our, your) and the use of “we” by the Crown to refer to the
government, as well as the incorporation of practices drawn from the American President’s
address to Congress on the State of the Union. I also identify other issues that have presented
challenges to governors. My review was widened to consider the most recent throne speeches in
the parliaments of all other Commonwealth realms in addition to the Canadian bodies (save
Tuvalu which is not available), as well as parliamentary websites that describe the procedures
around the opening of parliament.
The chapter will review recent throne speeches in Canada and other realms, with
particular attention paid to issues that have arisen in Ontario and Quebec. These two provinces
are highlighted because Ontario appears to be the first jurisdiction in Canada to have
demonstrated more partisanship in the text, and many believe that Quebec no longer has a throne
speech. I also consider how the increasingly partisan nature of throne speeches is infringing on
the dignity of the Crown. Finally, I propose remedies that can be used to protect the dignity of
the Crown and vice-regal actors, and discuss approaches used in other jurisdictions that may be
more effective.
The Queen has opened the Parliament of Canada on two occasions. The difference in the length
and text of her speech on these occasions is telling. On her first visit as Queen in 1957, Her
Majesty was presented with a speech of 1,314 words that included simply constructed sentences:
My Ministers will place before you a measure to ensure that those working
in industries under federal jurisdiction will receive annual vacations with
pay. You will be asked to approve bills relating to certain railway branch lines,
amendments to the Canadian and British Insurance Companies Act, and, insofar as the
other business before you permits, to several other statutes.5
During her Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Queen was asked to read 2,950 words6 and give voice to
rather more ambitious statements:
The Government will also be placing before Parliament, and in this way before the
people of Canada, later in this Session, a measure that will contain a number of proposals
relating to the Constitution of Canada, which it believes will be of particular importance
for the future of the country. The proposals will be concerned, among other matters, with
the essential nature of the Canadian federation and its objectives, with certain
fundamental rights and freedoms which the Government feels should be enjoyed by all
Canadians as being essential to Canada’s continuing existence as a free and democratic
society, and with certain elements of the framework of the Canadian federation that are
important to its effective functioning. It is the hope of the Government that these
proposals will stimulate a process of constitutional review in which all governments in
Canada will share and in which Canadians generally will have an opportunity to express
their views.7
In 1996, Governor General Romeo LeBlanc chose to stand at a podium to deliver the
speech (introducing a ministerial tone to the proceedings), a practice later adopted by some vice-
regal colleagues elsewhere. He explained his role in rather stark terms:
On the opening of the second session of this Parliament, and on behalf of the Government
of Canada, I make the following brief statements of government policy. The Prime
Minister and Ministers will expand on this in coming days. Legislation and other
administrative measures will follow.8
By 2006, the newly elected Conservative government included members of the Canadian
Armed Forces as prominent guests in the Senate chamber.9 Writing in the Globe and Mail,
columnist Jane Taber noted that “the Harper Government chose to emulate the way Americans
deliver their State of the Union addresses by inviting Canadian heroes rather than filling the
chamber with old politicians.”10 During the throne speech one year later, the governor general
spoke directly to military personnel seated in the chamber:
I would like to address the first words in this chamber to the members of the Canadian
Forces, some of whom are present here today. Their commitment and courage in the
name of justice, equality and freedom—whose benefits are not accorded to all peoples in
the world—are worthy of our utmost respect. 11
By 2011, the throne speech had unambiguously merged government and campaign
communications lines:
Canadians have expressed their desire for a strong, stable national government in this
new Parliament. With this clear mandate, our Government will deliver on its
Our Government’s plan builds on five years of hard work to create the right conditions
for growth and job creation: a stable, predictable, low-tax environment; a highly skilled
and flexible workforce; support for innovation and new technologies; and wider access to
markets abroad. This approach has allowed Canada to meet the challenges of the global
recession. The next phase of our Government’s plan is designed to help us stay on track
during the recovery. Since 2006, Canadians have benefited from significant, broad-based
tax cuts.12
Some aspects of the American ritual of the State of the Union, including partisan
statements, exhortations to all citizens, and the appearance of members of the audience to
emphasize a point, appear to have worked their way into Canadian speeches from the throne not
only in Ottawa but also in the provinces.
Quebec and Ontario: Divergent Practices
In the “discours du trône” at the opening of the third session of the twenty-eighth legislature of
Quebec in 1968, the lieutenant governor stated, “The time has come to reform our parliamentary
institutions and make of them a modern and effective instrument to serve the Quebec
community.”13 The statement was reflective of the Quiet Revolution’s influence on government
structures and legislative mechanisms, but it also signalled that Quebec, of all the provinces, was
most willing to attempt parliamentary innovations to reflect social realities. The creation of the
National Assembly of Quebec to succeed the bicameral legislature in 1969 was accompanied by
the francization of legislative terms, renaming and ultimately changing the length of the speech
from the throne, and abolishing the gowns worn by the Speaker and table officers. Quebec
nationalist antipathy toward the Crown and a desire to modernize parliamentary practices led to
the diminution of the lieutenant governor’s profile and opening ceremonial.
In February 1970, the “Discours inaugural” read by the lieutenant governor noted the
following objectives of the Union Nationale government of Jean-Jacques Bertrand (reproduced
in the language as read):
Le gouvernement désire manifester de nouveau sa ferme intention de continuer à placer
les travaux parlementaires sous le signe de l’action et de l’efficacité. Déjà, l’an dernier, le
discours inaugural a changé de ton et de caractère. On ne saurait arrêter d’avance le
programme d’une session entière à une époque où l’Assemblée nationale doit être en tout
temps au service du Québec et où l’élaboration des lois exige une participation croissante
et continue des commissions parlementaires et du public.
Since the last session, when you broke with an outmoded formalism, you have been
undertaking to free our parliamentary system of certain customs which no longer suit
today’s aspirations and needs.
Without prejudice to what might be done at the opening of a new Legislature, it has
seemed fitting this year to further simplify the ceremonies which mark the opening of the
The Union Nationale government cut the length of the speech from an average of a few
thousand to approximately 300 words in 1970; this trend continued through the next legislature
under Robert Bourassa. Lengthier speeches and a more traditional approach to outlining
government legislative intentions returned in 1973 and lasted until the arrival of the Parti
Québécois government of René Lévesque in 1976. Until then, parliaments were opened by a
“discours inaugural du lieutenant-gouverneur,” but the government`s program was to a greater
extent laid out by the first minister following the departure of the lieutenant governor from the
assembly. Ultimately, this became the “discours d’ouverture” given by the premier and the
subject of the first confidence vote in the assembly.
From 1976 and until the return of Bourassa as first minister in 1985, speeches averaged
300 words and were renamed the “allocution d’ouverture.” One very short speech of 50 words
was given in 1980 that specifically outlined the nature of emergency legislation to be passed the
same day.
In his 1989 review, Sharp noted that the Quebec speech was “relatively brief, factual and
politically neutral” and “consisted in the main of a simple description of the legislation to be put
before the National Assembly.”15 This observation was still true in 1996:
Le gouvernement vous proposera au cours de cette session plusieurs législations dans les
domaines socioéconomique et culturel. Vous aurez alors l'occasion de faire valoir vos
opinions sur chacune d'elles, et je suis convaincu que vous rechercherez à faire triompher,
dans ces échanges, la règle du droit, dans le meilleur intérêt de notre population.16
From 1999 onward, however, the speech began to refer less and less to government
business and instead stuck to congratulations for newly elected members, statements of sorrow
on the deaths of former colleagues, and recognition of parliamentary and provincial celebrations
and anniversaries. The speeches continued to decrease in length and since 1999 have been no
more than 1,500 words. In the opening of the national assembly in 2012, the lieutenant governor
was given 897 words to read, which are excerpted below:
Je veux tout d'abord féliciter tous les membres de l'Assemblée nationale qui ont obtenu
l'appui de leurs commettants respectifs lors des élections générales du 4 septembre
dernier. La population vous a accordé sa confiance, et je suis convaincu que vous vous
acquitterez des responsabilités qui vous sont dévolues avec honneur et dévouement.
Les travaux de cette séance, comme le stipule le règlement de l'Assemblée, seront
réservés exclusivement à la présentation par la première ministre de son programme de
Je note en effet avec une grande satisfaction que les femmes représentent
maintenant près du tiers des élus.
Nos concitoyens ont également ouvert les portes de l'Assemblée nationale à un
grand nombre de nouveaux élus. Sur ces banquettes, on compte en effet 40 nouveaux
députés, auxquels je souhaite la bienvenue. Parmi eux se trouve le plus jeune député
jamais élu au Québec; je veux bien sûr parler du député de Laval-des-Rapides, M. Léo
Face aux nombreux défis auxquels le Québec est confronté et alors qu'une
nouvelle législature commence, je voudrais avant tout vous transmettre un message de
confiance. Le Québec est une grande démocratie. Notre Parlement est l'un des plus
anciens au monde, et nous en sommes très fiers. En même temps, la société québécoise
participe pleinement à la modernité et à la construction du futur. Dans de nombreux
domaines, nous nous situons à l'avant-garde de ce qui se fait de mieux sur la planète. Le
Québec a tous les atouts pour poursuivre son développement, et vous en êtes les premiers
artisans. Concrètement, vous êtes les responsables d'un travail législatif dont la vocation
est d'améliorer la vie de l'ensemble des Québécois, et je sais que cette mission vous tient
tous à coeur.17
There is little doubt that this speech is conspicuously non-partisan. While it is respectful
of the democratic process, it does not purport to speak for the government. The Crown, in the
person of the lieutenant governor, opens the session but does not describe the forthcoming
legislative program. While some may feel that Quebec does not have a throne speech, the
“allocution d’ouverture” preserves the lieutenant governor’s neutrality in a parliament and in a
province where the monarchy is, at least to some, unwelcome and unwanted. It reflects the
unique approach to the throne speech that has evolved in the national assembly over the past four
Interestingly, the speech could be seen as a return to earlier times in which the lord
chancellor laid the agenda before Parliament after the Sovereign opened it. Ironically, in
Canada’s least monarchical jurisdiction, the lieutenant governor has never been asked to mouth
words that are overtly partisan or promotional of the government’s agenda. This is not so
Ontario’s throne speeches have evolved over the years from a position of greater dignity
and neutrality to being increasingly partisan. The election of a Conservative government in
Ontario in 1995 saw the introduction of “Your Government” rather than “My Government” and
“My Ministers.”18 This attempt to identify the government with its citizens rather than its
constitutional master has been adopted in the federal Parliament and several provinces. A recent
example by the Liberal government in Ontario abides by the notion that the lieutenant governor
speaks to and for the entire populace:
That’s why—for the next four years—your government will focus its efforts on
strengthening Ontario's economy and creating jobs. At the same time, it will continue to
protect the gains Ontarians have made, together, recognizing that quality hospitals, good
schools and strong public services are the foundation of a strong economy and a great
quality of life. To that end, your government will implement the plan it campaigned on—
and Ontarians elected it to carry out—as a strong, steady government. Where there are
good ideas, your government will adopt them. Where members are willing to work
together to strengthen our economy and create jobs, your government will welcome the
opportunity to work with them. Your government rejects the politics of division and
rancour and will oppose measures that do not serve to move Ontarians forward,
The speech in November 2005 replaced the varying formulaic conclusion “God bless
Canada, God bless Ontario, God Save the Queen” with the proletarian exhortation “Let’s get to
work.” Throne speeches in Ontario have, on occasion, borrowed the American practice of seating
individuals in the chamber and mentioning their names and support, as in the State of the Union
address. Given the neutrality of Hansard-like television coverage of the proceedings that focus
only on the speaker, this strategy may not have had the desired effect. Speeches became so
political in some instances that the lieutenant governor has had to suffer heckling from the
opposition benches during the reading of the speech.20
Ontario also experienced one of the most serious breaches of throne speech tradition in
Canada, when the 1998 speech named a parent who had written in support of the government’s
strict discipline programs for young offenders. This inadvertently—and illegally— revealed the
identity of the young offender in question and generated a firestorm of criticism and calls for a
police inquiry. The solicitor general and minister of correctional services resigned the next day
and offered an apology in the assembly to the lieutenant governor.21
Other Canadian Provinces
Throne speech writers in other Canadian provinces have taken note of developments in the
Canadian and Ontario parliaments. The speeches in other parts of the country are growing in
length and are increasingly partisan in the ways in which they refer to previous ministries,
promote the current government, draw attention to federal-provincial tensions, and criticize the
legal system. Some recent examples:
New Brunswick. Throughout this legislative session, ministers will provide more
information on the initiatives and legislation outlined in this Speech from the Throne.
Your government will also provide details on other programs and policies of importance
to all New Brunswickers. As Premier David Alward said earlier this year, innovation will
be the rocket fuel for our economy.22
Nova Scotia. My government is sticking to its plan. The plan is on track. The plan is
working. Even as it has had to build a sustainable, balanced financial foundation for the
province from the structural deficit it inherited, my government is also implementing
significant change that is making life better for families now and into the future.23
British Columbia. Following an exciting and unifying playoff run by the Vancouver
Canucks, the Stanley Cup riot was a dark stain on our province.
This breakdown in civil order requires that justice be done, and that it also be seen
to be done. A dedicated team of Crown Counsels is in place to swiftly process all Stanley
Cup riot charges and ensure that justice is served. The government also respectfully asks
and has requested Crown Counsel to advocate for television and radio access to the courts
during proceedings for those charged in relation to the Stanley Cup riot.24
Newfoundland and Labrador. We urge the Government of Canada to take full advantage
of our strengths by investing in defence infrastructure and initiatives at key centres such
as 5 Wing Goose Bay, 9 Wing Gander and Canadian Forces Station St. John’s on our
country’s easternmost flank. Canada has a responsibility, not only to ensure the security
of our nation’s coasts, but also to ensure the safety of those who travel them. Whether it
is fishers sailing the seas in boats or rig workers skimming the seas in helicopters, people
are not unjustified in expecting the Government of Canada to provide the resources to
enable Coast Guard and Search and Rescue personnel to respond promptly and
effectively to emergencies.25
Alberta has, from time to time, organized legislative business such that the premier gives
a speech in the assembly on the first day of the fall sitting, referred to as the “State of the
Province” address (the session having opened earlier in the calendar year with a speech from the
throne). In this address, the first minister outlines the government program for the fall sitting.
The Canadian Territories
The three territories are evolving constitutionally, and their commissioners have been instructed
to conduct themselves as provincial lieutenant governors, notwithstanding their role as
representatives of the federal government rather than the Crown.26 As a result, the opening
address by commissioners in the assemblies now resembles the throne speech in the provinces.
In fact, Yukon now refers to the event as a throne speech. In Nunavut, in 2011 the commissioner
read the opening address entirely in her dialect of Inuinnaqtun, surely a first in the
Commonwealth for an indigenous language! Recent examples show that the territories are
following provincial trends in speech length, political content, and references to territorial
ambitions within the federation.
Yukon. It is worthy to note that my government is the only government since the
inception of party politics in 1978 to achieve a third mandate. This indeed is historic and
clearly demonstrates that the people of the Yukon continue to want political stability,
continuity and prosperity.27
Northwest Territories. My speech today marks a departure from the Commissioner’s
address this Chamber has become used to. It is not the customary ceremonial welcome.
Commencing today it is much more similar to other Canadian jurisdictions, my address
adopts the practice of laying out your government’s agenda for the coming months, while
touching on recent accomplishments and looking forward to future development
The United Kingdom
There is no equal to the ceremonial associated with The Queen’s Speech29 or to the antiquity of
the ritual in London. The traditions and their evolution since the late fourteenth century could
easily be the subject of another chapter. In earlier times, the monarch would often speak briefly
before asking the lord chancellor to outline the legislative agenda, but since the mid-seventeenth
century it has been the norm for the Sovereign to read the speech (with the exception of George
I, due to lack of fluency in English, and Victoria, because of ongoing mourning for the Prince
Consort). The ceremony as it unfolds today dates from the mid-nineteenth century.30 The rise of
responsible government in the UK and its self-governing colonies meant that the speech had to
be written by ministers rather than reflect the monarch’s views. From the reign of Edward VII,
the Sovereign has almost always read the speech in the manner and splendour that we now
recognize.31 The speech consists of two clear parts: executive actions based on the royal
prerogative (foreign affairs, economic and defence issues) and legislative priorities (specific bills
to be introduced).
The Queen’s speech, which is now given in May or after a general election,32 is usually
less than one thousand words and is often delivered in approximately ten minutes.33 It is a model
of brevity and keeps fairly close to its purpose:
My Government’s legislative programme will focus on economic growth, justice and
constitutional reform. My Ministers’ first priority will be to reduce the deficit and restore
economic stability. Legislation will be introduced to reduce burdens on business by
repealing unnecessary legislation and to limit state inspection of businesses.34
While Westminster does not seem immune to hints of government agenda-setting, the Queen’s
speech alone respects the form in its brisk listing of upcoming legislation. But even in London
there can be concern over the words written for the Queen. In a recent presentation at
TEDxHouses of Parliament, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield noted, “Now endless initiatives are
rolled out going forward. Even our dear Monarch has to endure this when she reads out The
Queen’s Speech at the beginning of each session of parliament. I don’t know how she does it.
Unendurable.”35 Compared the speeches put forward to Her Majesty’s representatives to read
elsewhere, though, the Sovereign has little to quibble with in length or jargon at Westminster.
It is interesting to note that the devolved legislatures of Scotland, Northern Ireland,36 and
Wales have not adopted the tradition of the throne speech. While the Queen has spoken at the
opening of multi-year sessions of the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, she has only spoken in
general or reflective terms and has not outlined the legislative programs of the devolved
administrations. These speeches bear far more resemblance to the kind of speech now delivered
by the lieutenant governor of Quebec.
New Zealand and Australia
The Queen has opened the New Zealand parliament on five occasions, more than any other
Commonwealth realm.37 The first line of the speech is now delivered by the governor general in
Maori. New Zealand throne speeches are given at the beginning of a three-year parliament, but
the prime minister delivers a statement about the government’s program for the next twelve
months to the House at the beginning of each calendar year.
Her Majesty has opened the Australian Commonwealth parliament three times38 and that
of New South Wales twice,39 as well as once each for Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia, and
South Australia. Queensland has not had the honour.40 Australian parliamentary openings are
occasions for visible ceremonial. Most parliaments in Australia have adopted single-session
parliaments, either through standing orders or through practice, considerably reducing the
number of throne speeches and prorogations. To emphasize the role of Crown-in-Council, in the
State of Victoria a meeting of the executive council is held on the governor’s arrival, at which
the speech is formally approved by a minute of council before it is delivered.
Most federal and state speeches now include recognition that legislators are on
Aboriginal lands, a practice started in the Commonwealth parliament in 2008. For example, the
throne speech in Victoria in 2010 began, “I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of
the land on which we gather, the Kulin nation.”41 In Canberra and in most states, an Aboriginal
welcoming ceremony is given equal prominence to military honours on the governor’s arrival.
Australian throne speeches exhibit some of the characteristics found in Canada in the ways in
which they attempt to speak to all citizens, discuss topics of social and cultural importance, and
promote what might be considered overly ambitious political agendas.
Australia. I also acknowledge the remarkable circumstance of our nation having its first
female Governor-General and first female Prime Minister. This historic conjunction
should be an inspiration not only to the women and girls of our nation but to all
Australians. Rather, it is the Government’s hope that through its strong leadership,
combined with goodwill and consensus, even more can be achieved to the benefit of our
people and the advancement of our Commonwealth in the term that lies ahead.42
New South Wales. The Government’s 100 Day Action Plan delivers key elements of the
Five Point Action Plan.43
Queensland. The state of Queensland’s finances has been exposed, and the current
position is unsustainable with our debt headed for unprecedented levels. It is only by
reining in Government spending, waste and duplication that my Government will, over
time, be able to address Queensland’s budgetary issues. My Government is committed to
growing a balanced four pillar economy as it looks to the future to restore hope and
opportunity, and to build a better Queensland.44
The state of Western Australia offers a different approach. There, the throne speech
makes clear that the governor is being advised of the government’s plans and policies, and the
formula “The Government has advised me….” appears many times. This distances the governor
from the actions of the government and dissociates him or her from future ill will or partisan
backlash. It also does not confuse the actions of the governor with those of the elected
The Liberal National Government has advised me of its commitment to improving the
health sector across the state, particularly regional health services through providing
additional support to the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and the Patients Assisted
Travel Scheme (PATS).45
The Americas
The Queen’s Caribbean and Central American realms organize traditional ceremonies for the
openings of their parliaments. A cursory Internet search returns many examples of governors
general arriving wearing their civil and military uniforms and inspecting guards of honour.
Although these throne speeches still employ the use of “my government,” they are also among
the longest in the Commonwealth, and they too show signs of increasing partisanship. Some
recent examples:
Jamaica. The Government places priority on preparing and passing an Act to establish Jamaica
as a Republic, within the Commonwealth of Nations. The Government will be proceeding in this
regard through consensus and dialogue with the Opposition.46
St Vincent & the Grenadines. Mr. Speaker, it is heartening that my Government remains
fully committed to serving the public interest having won the trust and goodwill of
Vincentians for a third Parliamentary term in December 2010.47
Belize. It is customary in a speech of this kind to outline the Government’s projects, plans
and priorities over the next five years. While much has been achieved during the last term
of office, my Government will continue the focus on economic and social programs,
infrastructure and physical development, national security and public safety and the
delivery of Government services. We will pursue all these and more under the principles
of good governance, honesty and transparency.48
South Pacific parliaments have produced some contentious and lengthy speeches from
the throne. A recent example in Papua New Guinea refers to the parliamentary crisis that took
place there in 2011 and 2012:
I was confronted with legal issues as to who to recognize as Prime Minister and where I
should get advice from. Just a short distance from my residence at the entrance of
Government House, I watched two different police factions fight over power and we
know all too well how many of us tried extremely hard to find solutions to the problem.
There was confusion and fear and there were scary and uncertain times.
Thankfully Mr. Speaker, in all of this the ordinary citizens of Papua New Guinea stood
firm and resolute. They could have taken to the streets to express their anger as we so
often see in many countries. They could also have taken sides along tribal, provincial or
regional lines and take on each other, but they did not. Instead they displayed patience
and understanding and they left the political events to take their own course.49
Solomon Islands takes the prize for the longest speech in the Crown Commonwealth in
recent years—more than 12,000 words, notwithstanding its population of half a million. Throne
speeches there are often a compendium of individual island and government agency plans. In the
2008 throne speech, the governor general admonished those departments that had not submitted
items to him:
Before making my concluding remarks please permit me to register my profound
displeasure over a very serious negligence of duty by Permanent Secretaries. I was given
a 67 pages draft speech on Wednesday 12 March 2008 with the expectation that I should
condense or reduce the draft to the content now before the Legislature to my
dissatisfaction. Certain permanent secretaries have not made their submissions to Cabinet
Office thus their ministries do not appear in the speech. The Government House, may I
humbly submit is not the place where Permanent Secretaries should give their incomplete
work to be done by the Governor General and staff.50
This review has found many similarities among contemporary throne speeches throughout the
Crown Commonwealth, but Westminster and Quebec stand out from the rest. The Westminster
and Quebec speeches are the least controversial and non-partisan and are consistently brief.
There, however, the similarities between the two end. The speech at Westminster is delivered by
a very experienced constitutional actor and is written by politicians and civil servants who work
within a framework of tradition and respect. In London, the speech does not bring the Sovereign
into the political arena, which cannot be said to be the case in other realms and jurisdictions.
Ironically, in Quebec, the election of separatist governments with little affection for the Crown
has led to minimalist throne speeches that totally avoid the political issues of the day and protect,
perhaps accidentally, the lieutenant governor’s role and neutrality.
The three devolved legislatures that have recently been created (or recreated in the case
of Scotland and Northern Ireland) have given the first minister the role of setting the agenda for
the session. Only in Scotland and Wales are the assemblies addressed by the Sovereign in a
manner more like that of Quebec. Unlike the Quebec national assembly, however, these speeches
are not part of the opening legislative procedures but are separate ceremonial occasions.
Without rating the speeches for their adherence to a constitutional norm, little if nothing
has improved since Mitchell Sharp concluded his investigations. In fact, the observance of
proprieties has declined. The speech writers do not appear to consider the distinct voice that the
Crown’s representative brings to the occasion, nor the suitability of some content. For many
governments throughout the Crown Commonwealth, the speech has become an uninspiring
laundry list of policies and promises that not even the most efficient parliament could deliver.
Future studies on throne speeches could consider what role they have in creating a feeling among
the electorate that the workings of parliament are neither explicit nor comprehensible: Do
speeches create unrealistic expectations among voters, and do they suggest a belief that the
Crown plays a role in creating government policy?
Among the first elements apparent in reading the speeches is the use of the pronoun to
describe the government. This seemingly minor issue can have great significance. While some
traditionalists may hold that the constitutional relationship is better represented by the phrase
“My Government” or “My Ministers,” the use of “The Government” can suggest a greater
distance between the reader and the government of the day. There is strong evidence to suggest
that the use of “The Government” began in Quebec in the 1960s and has spread throughout the
Commonwealth over the past four decades. This phrase is usually employed in jurisdictions that
seek to downplay the Crown, but it has its advantages in placing distance between the governor
and legislative and policy promises. The use of “your” or “our” government in various
parliaments across Canada seems to be an attempt to encourage a greater feeling of ownership by
listeners and to suggest that voters should see themselves reflected in the government’s policies.
In this context, the use of “we” (as in “We will reduce the size of Manitoba’s public service by
600 over three years”51) leads to great confusion, seeming to directly involve listeners and the
Crown in policy and government action. Drafters of the throne speech should steer clear of “we.”
Those involved in writing the speech, that is, staff largely centred in the communications
operations supporting first ministers and their cabinets, might consider whether the length and
word choices are effective. While governments may believe that the throne speech is an
opportunity to put their case to the populace without interruption, the major policy and
legislative initiatives could be accomplished by a shorter, more focused speech and one that is
more appropriate for the Crown to give. Alternatively, the Quebec example has much to
recommend it. The speech opens the work of the parliament but leaves the prime role for policy
to the first minister. The New Zealand and Australian parliaments offer another variation: a
multi-year single session parliament that provides the first minister with an opportunity to speak
on the agenda in subsequent calendar years. A “session” thus runs for the entire electoral term.
This option has some attractive elements: it emphasizes the ceremonial importance of the first
opening of parliament following an election, and reduces or eliminates prorogation. The
antipodean openings also honour Aboriginal peoples prominently in the text and in the ritual.
This model of acknowledging land title during throne speeches and arrival ceremonies could
have some applicability to Canadian parliaments, as well as other realms where there is a distinct
indigenous history and heritage.52
Government communications are now highly sophisticated and involve different
techniques and platforms, but the throne speech merits special consideration of its characteristics.
The dignity of the occasion, the voice of the reader, and the purpose of the event suggest a more
sober approach in keeping with the non-partisan nature of the Crown. Pronouns like “your” and
“our” must be used with care when speaking on behalf of the Crown. Advocacy of a policy or
the offerings of self-congratulations to governments for their re-election or policy successes
seem out of place coming from the throne. There are many opportunities to place these views on
the record in a parliamentary cycle, not the least of which is the address-in-reply debate.
Perhaps the best advice comes from an individual who has likely read more throne
speeches throughout the Commonwealth than anyone could ever want to. Her Majesty, during
her historic attendance at a British cabinet meeting in December 2012, is reported to have
expressed the hope that next year’s speech would be “on the shorter rather than longer side.”53
Her subjects can surely agree that this is, at the very least, a good starting point for enhancing the
dignity of this parliamentary occasion.
The author is grateful for sharp-eyed editing by Geoffrey Little at Concordia University, who
provided invaluable advice on the text, in addition to the research guidance of Sherry Smugler,
Government Publications Librarian, Robarts Library, University of Toronto.
1 Jacques Monet, The Canadian Crown (Ottawa: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1979), 9.
2 Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, 2nd ed. (London: Henry S. King and Company, 1867).
3 Privy Council Office, Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, Henry F. Davis and André Millar
(Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1968).
4 Mitchell Sharp,“Depoliticizing the Speech from the Throne,” Parliamentary Government 8, no. 4 (1989): 16-18.
5 Speech from the Throne, Canada, October 14, 1957.
6 In 1969 throne speeches began to refer to “the government” rather than “my government.”
7 Speech from the Throne, Canada, October 18, 1977.
8 Speech from the Throne, Canada. February 27, 1996.
9 In recent years, the guest list for the speech has reduced invitations for certain categories from the Table of Precedence
such as the diplomatic corps, lieutenant governors, and privy councillors and included more discretionary guests. As
senators’ desks are no longer removed, there is reduced space available for seating. The chief of the defence staff as
well as several aides-de-camp to the governor general have always attended the speech.
10 Jane Taber, Globe & Mail, April 5, 2006, A6.
11 Speech from the Throne, Canada, October 16, 2007.
12 Speech from the Throne, Canada, June 3, 2011.
13 Official Debates, Legislative Council of Quebec, February 20, 1968.
14 Official Debates, National Assembly of Quebec, February 24, 1970.
15 Sharp, “Depoliticizing the Speech,” 17.
16 Official Debates, National Assembly, March 25, 1996.
17 Official Debates, National Assembly, October 31, 2012.
18 Speech from the Throne, Ontario, September 27, 1995.
19 Speech from the Throne, Ontario, November 22, 2011.
20 Hilary Weston, No Ordinary Time: My Years as Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor (Toronto: Whitfield Editions, 2007),
46. Even the Queen suffered minor heckling from members of the House of Lords on November 24, 1998, when Her
Majesty read that the Lords would be reformed to become more democratic and representative.
21 Weston, No Ordinary Time, 49.
22 Speech from the Throne, New Brunswick, November 27, 2012.
23 Speech from the Throne, Nova Scotia, March 29, 2012.
24 Speech from the Throne, British Columbia, October 3, 2011.
25 Speech from the Throne, Newfoundland and Labrador, March 5, 2012.
26 Commissioners of the Territories, 2000. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
27 Speech from the Throne, Yukon, December 1, 2011.
28 Speech from the Throne, Northwest Territories, May 23, 2012.
29 Also referred to as “Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech” or the “Gracious Address.”
30 The rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster in 1852 and the architecture of the building contributed to the ceremonial
as we now know it.
31 H.S.Cobb, “The Staging of Ceremonies of State in the House of Lords,” in The Houses of Parliament: History, Art,
Architecture (London: Merrell, 2000).
32 The adoption of The Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011, changed this from the traditional date in November.
33 On May 17, 2005, the Queen read the speech from the throne in London and flew to Canada, still managing to
undertake several engagements on arrival in Regina.
34 Queen’s Speech, May 9, 2012, House of Lords, London, UK.
35 Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield at TEDx Houses of Parliament, July 26, 2012,
36 There was a tradition of a throne speech in the parliament of Northern Ireland (1921–1972), but the Northern Ireland
Assembly (1998– ) does not incorporate this practice. The executive instead publishes a Northern Ireland Programme
for Government.
37 In 1954, 1963, 1970, 1974, 1977, and 1990.
38 In 1954, 1974, and 1977.
39 In 1954 and 1992.
40 Unlike Australia, the Queen is not part of the legislatures of Canadian provinces, and it has never been the practice
for Her Majesty to perform a parliamentary function in a province. She has given ceremonial speeches in the
legislatures of Quebec (1964), Saskatchewan (1987), and Alberta (2005).
41 Speech from the Throne, Victoria, December 21, 2010.
42 Speech from the Throne, Commonwealth of Australia, September 28, 2010.
43 Speech from the Throne, New South Wales, May 3, 2011.
44 Speech from the Throne, Queensland, May 16, 2012.
45 Speech from the Throne, Western Australia, November 6, 2008.
46 Speech from the Throne, Jamaica, May 10, 2012.
47 Speech from the Throne, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, January 14, 2013.
48 Speech from the Throne, Belize, March 21, 2012.
49 Speech from the Throne, Papua New Guinea, August 21, 2012.
50 Speech from the Throne, Solomon Islands, March 17, 2008.
51 Speech from the Throne, Manitoba, November 19, 2012.
52 The Ontario speech from the throne delivered on February 19, 2013, opened with an acknowledgement of the
traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, likely the first time Aboriginal title was referenced in a
Canadian throne speech.
53 Daily Mail, December 18, 2012.
... Having vice-regal representatives read partisan throne speeches, for instance, demands that the Crown speak in politically charged terms. 72 Canadian governments have appointed former politicians to viceregal o ces, which paints the o ce-holder with a partisan hue, whether justi ed or not. Political actors who are frustrated with a vice-regal decision can accuse the o ce-holder of bias. ...
The Crown’s role in government formation is poorly understood in Canada. As demonstrated by the confusion surrounding the Lieutenant Governor’s duties in the aftermath of recent elections in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, the functions of the Crown are misrepresented by politicians vying for power and misconstrued by commentators. These cases also suggest a degree of uncertainty about the Crown’s powers within the vice-regal office themselves. There has been a regrettable tendency to exaggerate the Crown’s involvement in government formation, which risks dragging the vice-regal representatives into the political arena or creating unrealistic expectations about the personal discretion they are able to exercise. Misunderstandings about the Crown’s place in government formation can be traced to three gaps in knowledge. The first is a vague comprehension of the foundational conventions of responsible government as they pertain to the Crown. While the conventions that surround the government’s need to secure and hold the confidence of the elected house of the legislature are widely recognized, the conventions that frame the relationship between a first minister and the Crown are not. Second, there is confusion about what counts as a veritable constitutional convention. Conventions are too often conflated with other types of rules, notably practices, customs, and norms. Differentiating between these concepts helps us identify which constitutional rules firmly bind the Crown and which are more fluid and evolving. Thirdly, the lack of official explanations and transparency about the Crown’s functions and constitutional activities makes it difficult to appreciate the rules that surround the institution. While some vice-regal offices have made efforts to better articulate their constitutional roles, there is a need for greater openness and explanation. My aim in this article is to offer an analysis of the types of rules that surround the Crown and government formation in Canada. I begin the article with a discussion of the difference between constitutional convention, practice, custom, and norms. I then examine how the Crown’s role in government formation are guided by these four types of rules. I conclude by recommending ways that vice-regal offices can better explain their functions and avoid confusion and controversy about their powers and personal discretion.
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