The juvenile antics of the Senate page at Friday’s Throne Speech brought rather more attention than usual to the event itself, which is altogether welcome. The point of the Throne Speech is, amongst other things, that Canada is not a juvenile country.
It is true that compared to the ancient civilizations of, say, the Arab world, Canada is a rather recent arrival on the world stage. Yet the point made by the page to explain her “Stop Harper” sign, namely that Canada needs an “Arab Spring,” makes the juxtaposition all the more clear. Compared to even much older cultures, Canada has achieved a measure of liberty, prosperity and stability quite worth remarking, especially on the occasion of a Throne Speech.
The Throne Speech must open a session of Parliament, the constitutional principle being twofold. First, that Senators and MPs cannot gather to provide “advice and consent” to the sovereign unless she invites them to do so. Second, that the sovereign addresses Parliament not with her own words, but with that of her government. It is the sovereign who summons the Parliament, but in practice she is its servant.
There have been 146 speeches from the throne, the first one being in 1867. About a year ago, thinking it worthwhile to witness the full ceremonial of our constitutional system, I joined the public gallery for the final Throne Speech of the last Parliament.
The speech itself was notable for setting something of a record for abandoned plans. The Governor General announced that her government would consider neutering the words of the national anthem; by the time we arrived at the post-oration reception in the rotunda, word was already circulating that the proposal would be dropped, as it was formally the next day.
The purpose of the Throne Speech is not what is said, but how it is said. The sovereign agrees by convention to take advice from her first minister; thus the prime minister attends, seated by the Governor General. The executive branch – the cabinet -enjoys the confidence of Parliament. Parliament is present, and it is the representatives of Parliament, the Speakers of the Senate and of the House, who address the Governor General. The constitutional achievement of responsible government – the executive being held to account by the legislative – is thus expressed. The judicial branch too is present in the Supreme Court justices.
The whole affair of the opening of Parliament takes place in the upper house, the Senate, rather than the people’s chamber, the Commons. Contrast that to the American model, where the president addresses Congress from the lower house. Ours is an important expression of constitutional monarchy. The people’s will is determinative, as expressed in Parliament, but the people’s will is not the sole source of political authority and constitutional legitimacy. Those roots run deeper, into the history and tradition of the nation, the continuity of which is manifest in the monarchy itself.
State ceremonial can be fussy and formal, but Canadian ceremonial is understated, avoiding altogether any glorification of the state. Partly this is due to Canada’s peculiar constitutional genius – a monarchy with the sovereign abroad. Even the Governor General has only delegated authority. The prime minister gives advice and the two speakers represent their respective chambers. The whole affair is conducted by people who are instruments, not sources, of power. It is a humble constitutional framework, though by now a sturdy one.
One might validly question whether the quasi-plenipotentiary powers of the courts violate this sense of delegated powers of the Crown-in-parliament. The authority of our courts, post-Charter, is an anomaly in the Westminster system, an American insertion into our Canadian constitutional development.
In the first Throne Speech, in 1867, the Governor General, Viscount Monck, read as follows: “In a similar spirit of respect for your privileges, as a free and self-governing people, the Act of Union, as adopted by the Imperial Parliament, imposes the duty and confers Upon you the right of reducing to practice the system of Government, which it has called into existence, of consolidating its institutions, harmonizing its administrative details, and of making such legislative provisions as will secure to a constitution, in some respects novel, a full, fair, and unprejudiced trial.”
After almost 150 years, the verdict is in. Our humble and sturdy system has matured. Canada is among the world’s older democracies, peaceable and secure. It is a remarkable achievement, worth remarking.