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By Karl Salgo, Executive Director, Public Governance
The tradition of opening a new session of Parliament, whether following prorogation or an election, with a speech by the sovereign, or in Canada’s case her representative the Governor General (GG), has roots stretching back to the earliest days of the English Parliament, when the monarch would explain to the members of Parliament why they had been summoned. The Queen or GG deliver the speech from the House of Lords or Senate respectively; as regal or vice-regal persons they do not enter “the other place”, whose members are ceremoniously summoned to the Upper Chamber for the occasion.
While the ceremony surrounding a Speech from the Throne (SFT) lends parliamentary proceedings a certain gravitas, the SFT and documents like it also have a significant functional role in good governance. “Statements of government direction” are critical both for lending coherence and transparency to government policy, and as a mechanism of accountability. A government that doesn’t follow through on its stated agenda will soon be called to account for that failure, noisily if not always effectively.
You can see this grand theory in practice in Canada’s Parliament. In the SFT the government sets out its agenda for the new session of Parliament, and parliamentarians debate their support for this agenda. The vote on the SFT is a confidence vote: a government that lost this vote would be expected to offer its resignation. In the UK, the Queen’s Speech tends to be a shorter, more functional document than our SFT, more closely focused on the legislation that the Government proposes to introduce that session. A Canadian SFT tends to speak to the government’s agenda more broadly, and to serve as a rather promotional communications document.
However promotional it may be, the SFT is genuinely integrated into the internal development of government policy. For example, items in the SFT will typically find their way into ministerial mandate letters, and the proposals that Ministers bring to Cabinet are generally expected to have explicit links to the SFT or comparable policy statements such as the federal budget. Savvy public servants pay close attention to the SFT and particularly the sections that impact on their own departments.