Politics·Analysis

Do we still need throne speeches that date from the age of thrones?

If we want 'real change,' as someone is promising, maybe it is time to rethink some of our more slavish parliamentary traditions and find a more businesslike way to set out the nation's business, Neil Macdonald writes.

If we want 'real change,' as someone is promising, maybe we rethink some of our slavish traditions

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens as Governor General David Johnston delivers the speech from throne Friday in the Senate chamber. An ancient tradition done and dusted in about 15 minutes. (Reuters)

When Justin Trudeau was asked last month why he'd divided his new cabinet strictly according to gender, he famously replied "Because it's 2015."

That answer went nuts on the internet, and was admired the world over, especially by women.

Then, Friday, with 2016 almost upon us, an ancient, rather bizarre aristos-versus-proles ritual took place, something our new prime minister, who declares himself the agent of "real change," might want to think about.

The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod marched down the hall and banged on the door of the Commons, and required its members to attend immediately in the Other Place, where the representative of the sovereign had some important things to say.

And they did, shuffling quickly down the hall to snag a good spot.

Some of them actually got to the gold bar of the Red Chamber, beyond which no Commoner is to pass, where they, all of them sent to Ottawa by voters, had to stand, not sit, and listen.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the bar, seated in cushioned luxury, the people who amount to the hired help listened to the most important member of the hired help, the Governor General, read the speech on behalf of a hereditary monarch who lives in a foreign country.

Not all the elected members actually made it into the room. Some had to hang around outside, trying to look dignified in the vestibule.

So well behaved

Sorry, all due respect to tradition and so on, that's just weird. This is, as Prime Minister Trudeau noted, 2015.

At least in Great Britain, where this whole business was invented, and is rooted in classism and bloody civil wars and regicide, the House of Commons has the bottle to heckle, loudly, when the Gentleman Usher shows up with his summons, and its members continue to complain and grumble all the way down the hall.

I covered one opening of the Mother of Parliaments, years ago, and had to grin when one Scottish Laborite, unimpressed by the monarch waiting on the throne down the hall, yelled "tell her to pay her taxes."

Canada's parliamentarians are more, well, docile.

You'd think that somewhere in Friday's speech, Trudeau could have had Governor General David Johnston ask the assembled gathering: "Really, folks, we're all going to keep doing this?

"We are all appointed, and you guys outside the gold bar are elected, but really, we should all be elected, and perhaps we can get together and try to accomplish that."

Let's move on

Yes, yes, that would mean Senate reform and, of course, and we have a Constitution and that would mean getting the provinces to agree, and Quebec's government, for one, would probably like Senate reform to mean Quebec's premier, rather than the prime minister, nominating Quebec senators.

But Quebeckers are, in many ways, even more ferocious about democracy than the rest of us, and probably find all this classist deference to a queen on the other side of the ocean even weirder than some of the rest of us.

Governor General David Johnston greets guests in the Hall of Honour before the speech from the throne on Friday. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

As for the throne speech itself: OK, great, super, been hearing this since August, let's move on, shall we?

There were wrinkles to parse, of course.

Suddenly, the government is going to "work toward" rather than outright execute certain promises — a price on carbon, making college education more affordable, improving the Canada Pension Plan, developing a "new health accord," keeping us safe and fighting terror, etc.

Suddenly, Justin Trudeau is talking not just about legalizing marijuana but restricting it. Not sure what that means.

Oregon and Colorado and Alaska and the District of Columbia and the state of Washington have all managed to legalize pot without restricting it any further than it was already restricted. I mean, either you do it or you don't, no?

Canada will also "renew its commitment" to peacekeeping, which presumably means looking around for some peace to keep somewhere, and then dispatching unarmed soldiers in blue helmets to keep it.

Lovely sentiment, but the world has changed a lot in the last decade or so.

There will also be lot of emphasis placed on diversity over the next four years. Diversity, in this prime minister's estimation, is a universal solvent. Good enough.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston reads the goverment's speech from the throne in the Senate chamber. 15:07

And there'll be tax cuts for the middle class. Nothing in there about the tax increases that will inevitably arrive, but a throne speech is a political document.

It would have been nice to hear some specifics about fiscal policy, and perhaps a bit about where this government hopes interest rates will go, but those are difficult issues and again, a throne speech is political.

There were a couple of sharp, un-sunny political shots at the Harper Conservatives. Like the explicit promises not to use government money for political ads and to end big bulldozer omnibus bills. And for there to be no more interference with the organs of Parliament, and to rely on scientific evidence, as opposed to ideology.

Deliciously, it was read out by the same Governor General who read the last throne speech on behalf of the (absent) former PM who did all those things.

And it was nice to hear that this government will support the CBC. (Full disclosure: I work for the CBC.)

Anyway, as the last paragraph of the mercifully short speech put it, may Divine Providence guide you, and the Queen, too, and anybody else who can help you actually get some of this stuff done.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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