REACTION: Speech from the Throne - Institute on Governance

REACTION: Speech from the Throne

As originally published in iPolitics Wednesday, November 25th 2021.

With contribution from Karl Salgo and Rhonda Moore.

A time-honoured tradition.

A Speech from the Throne or Throne Speech is a highly ceremonial element of the parliamentary process, the centerpiece of the opening of any new session of Parliament following an election or a prorogation. The Governor General, as the representative of the Queen, reads the speech on behalf of “her” government, in which the latter seeks the support of parliamentarians for its legislative agenda for the session.

Parliament debates and votes on the throne speech, which is a matter of confidence, meaning that it must receive majority support if the government is to continue in office.

Canadian throne speeches tend to differ somewhat from their British counterpart, the Queen’s Speech, most conspicuously in length. In recent times the average duration of the Queen’s Speech is about 10 minutes, which means about 1000 words or less.

Our throne speech tends to be much longer – typically in the 3,000 word range (Tuesday’s speech being a bit over 2,700). Arguably, that reflects a greater tendency for Canadian governments to use the speech as a communications tool. Or perhaps it’s just that no one dares to tax Her Majesty with the additional verbiage.

The need for a public statement of strategic direction.

From a governance perspective, the throne speech is one of the more significant manifestations of a core principle: the need for public statements of strategic direction. By strategic direction we mean that specific government initiatives should be part of a broader, coherent agenda.

Such forward planning contributes to effective performance, while the public nature of the plans contributes to accountability, two other core governance principles. Canadian governments have a relative handful of comprehensive strategic statements – electoral platforms for those who have recently been to the polls, throne speeches which often and justifiably resemble electoral platforms, or the federal budget, to name a few.

What’s at Stake?

The Governor General’s concluding remarks gave clear marching orders to Parliamentarians when she said “[the] priorities for this 44th Parliament are clear: a more resilient economy, and a cleaner and healthier future for all of our kids.”

In a mandate that will be marked by an aggressive push for a “return to normal” and “building back better”, we see rich opportunities for action informed by scientific evidence and innovation. 

Emerging from the pandemic will require vaccines for children, COVID-19 “booster shots” for the rest of us. “A cleaner healthier future” is undeniably a reference to transitioning to a low carbon future and investing in measures to adapt to or mitigate the impact of climate change. Science and innovation have key roles to play to achieve these visions. 

But science and innovation alone will not deliver the government’s new mandate. Progress requires the willingness of society to accept the knowledge science provides, and to act on that knowledge. That requires trust. Her Excellency gave a clear directive on that topic, too, when, in her concluding benediction she said: “may you be equal to the profound trust bestowed on you by Canadians, and may Divine Providence guide you in all your duties.”

Accountability comes next.

These points considered, it would be surprising if this throne speech did not resemble the government’s recent campaign platform, which is arguably a reflection of its accountability (i.e., is the government doing what it said it would?). The next step in accountability will be the debate and confidence vote, and the longer term manifestation will be how well the government delivers on this agenda.

When it comes to accountability for public statements, leaving themselves a bit of wiggle room is a time-honoured tradition among Canadian governments.

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