Speech from the Throne: Symbolism, Politics – Winnipeg Free Press

Opinion



On November 23, the Manitoba Legislative Assembly will begin a new session with a reading of the Speech from the Throne by Lieutenant Governor (LG) Janice Filmon.

All Speeches from the Throne are both symbolic and political events. While the speech is read by the LG, its content is prepared by the prime minister, political advisers, ministers, civil servants, sometimes with the help of outside communication specialists.

This will be the first Speech from the Throne delivered under the leadership of our new Premier Heather Stefanson.

There is an inherent contradiction in this important ritual in our public life. This is a rare occasion where LG enters the political realm by reading the words of the government of the day. On all other occasions, she limits her public comments to “safe” non-political topics.

At the same time, the Speech from the Throne is part of the “Crown in Parliament” tradition, reflecting the British heritage of our political system. As the representative of the Crown, the LG summons the Legislative Branch and no business can be transacted until it is in session.

The overlap and intersection of politics and symbolism on this occasion may confuse some members of the public regarding the LG’s political impartiality.

Normally, when a pandemic isn’t raging, Speeches from the Throne involve pomp and ceremony. There is a 21-gun salute. Dignitaries from the judiciary, military, business, educational institutions and media gather to witness the event and interact with politicians and officials. The speech garners extensive media coverage devoted to the content and reactions to the speech.

The event represents an important opportunity for the ruling party to gain ground politically. Over time, Speeches from the Throne have become longer and more partisan documents. This trend reflects increased political polarization, ongoing campaigns and the multi-channel communications environment that currently exists.

The result is that communications have become central to all aspects of the government process.

Governments recognize that most people, most of the time, are spectators to the political process; they are not directly involved in seeking to influence government decision-making. Instead, they experience political reality primarily through a series of kaleidoscopic images appearing in the media.

Their limited and flippant attention to public affairs means they are potentially open to manipulation by the symbolic gestures and carefully selected words used by governments. An example is the frequent presence in Speeches from the Throne of the phrase “your government”, which implies responsiveness to the public.

Good Speeches from the Throne take a long time to prepare, as governments must achieve internal consensus on what to present, how the issues will be framed, and a list of bills to present to the Legislative Assembly. They also seek to defuse predictable criticism from the opposition.

Sometimes the speech includes direct attacks on the record of previous governments. As part of a publicity battle, the opposition NDP recently began publishing alternative throne speeches criticizing the government and presenting an alternative political agenda.

The November 23 Speech from the Throne represents an opportunity for Stefanson to identify his political priorities and demonstrate a leadership approach different from that of former Prime Minister Brian Pallister. Stefanson was not sworn in until November 3; perhaps, confident of victory in the contested leadership race, she began writing the Speech from the Throne early.

Given the short time available, however, it is likely that the speech will be long on generalities and short on details.

After the Speech from the Throne is read, a government motion is moved to accept the speech, followed by an opposition amendment to the motion rejecting the government’s legislative program. Eight days of debate follow, during which the rules of relevance are relaxed so that MPs can express themselves on all subjects that interest them and/or their constituents.

Debate takes precedence over other business and eventually the amendment and the motion are put to a vote. If the motion to accept the Speech from the Throne were not adopted, the government would fall — which, of course, never happens when there is a majority government.

Ideally, on November 23 as part of the presentation of the Speech from the Throne or a few days later, the government will table the full texts of the bills it wishes to have approved during the session. Symbolically, this would signal Stefanson’s stated commitment to greater listening and collaboration. This would avoid a repetition of the unprecedented fiasco of bills tabled without text for four months.

Early publication of bills would give Members of Parliament, affected groups and interested individuals time to study their content. And, finally, such an action would demonstrate both the symbolism and the practical politics of the Speech from the Throne event.

Paul G. Thomas is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba.

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