Dispatch

Canada’s bloated throne speeches are getting longer, duller, and more partisan

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wait during the throne speech in the Senate chamber in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

In the tech world, “bloat” describes a computer program that has grown so large it can singlehandedly make a computer unusable. If you’ve used Apple iTunes, you understand bloat.

With new Governor General Mary Simon set to open the new Parliament today by reading several thousand words, it could be argued that Canada’s throne speeches are suffering from a bad case of bloat.

The first-ever throne speech, delivered to the first Parliament in 1867, was about 800 words long. The most recent throne speech, delivered last year to kick off the second session of the 43rd Parliament, was 6,781 words, which adds up to a 750 percent increase.

It’s not just a problem for the weary members of Parliament, journalists, and other observers in the Senate chamber who have to sit through the ever-expanding speeches.

The former Liberal cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp noticed the trend as early as 1989, pointing out that speeches from the throne were getting longer and more partisan with every year that passes. Sharp found evidence at both the provincial and national levels and argued that the overall quality of the speeches was also plummeting.

The throne speech had “been converted from its original purpose into a vehicle of government propaganda,” wrote Sharp.

Since Sharp’s article was published more than 30 years ago, things have only gotten worse.

In 2015, Governor General David Johnston spoke about “strengthening the middle class, and helping those working hard to join it,” which was a line repeated ad nauseam during the election campaign that had brought Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party to power that year.

Just four years earlier, after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed a majority government, Johnston found himself explaining in the throne speech that Canadians wanted “a strong, stable national government,” another election soundbite that was incessantly repeated in the preceding campaign.

These moments highlight the strange circumstance of a throne speech: the Crown’s representative, the non-partisan governor general, reads a speech drafted by ministers about the government’s legislative plan for the upcoming session.

Sharp’s critique was written after a career in government with Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, who appear to have caused a major shift in the length and content of throne speeches.

In 1980, Pierre Trudeau’s government launched an ambitious throne speech that set a couple of high-water marks. First, it breached the 4,000 word mark, pushing the speech beyond half an hour for anyone listening live. It also introduced a new innovation by littering marketing-style sub-headings throughout the speech. After the pre-amble, Governor General Edward Schreyer reached the first section, which began with the heading: “Putting People First.

The next sub-heading would prove ominous for Alberta: “Security of Energy, at a Fair Price.” In that year’s October budget, the National Energy Program would be announced, sparking a bitter reaction in Alberta.

This may have been a watershed moment for the country, but it may also have been a turning point for speeches from the throne. The sub-headings gave the 1980 speech the appearance of a political document and contemporary speeches barely pretend to be anything else.

In Canada’s early years, there wasn’t much time for political musings during the speech from the throne.

The first ten throne speeches averaged 854 words, according to the Senate’s website. The throne speeches given at the beginning of the first 10 Parliaments averaged 670 words in length, according to The Hub’s analysis. That number is dragged down by an “inconvenient session” in 1896 after Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals formed government, which was quickly followed by a new session the following year.

The 225-word throne speech in 1896 was grudgingly delivered and Parliament was only in session to make “provision for the public service.” The only issue mentioned was the Manitoba School Question, which was the national scandal that helped end Conservative rule after the party had governed for most of the previous 30 years.

The speech from the throne remained a relatively brief document until the middle of the 20th century. Some major historical events warranted barely a mention and the early speeches tended to be laundry lists of the government’s intentions.

Even the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, at the dawn of Canada’s ninth Parliament, couldn’t push the throne speech past 1,000 words. The expressions of “universal regret and sympathy” warranted barely a paragraph before the speech moved on to welcome Canadian soldiers coming home from the Second Boer War in South Africa. King George V’s death in 1936 pushed the speech up to 1,300 words, with two full paragraphs devoted to his memory.

The first lengthy throne speech in Canadian history marked the beginning of a new Parliament in the wake of the victorious end of the Second World War. The speech reads like a long sigh of relief after six years of war against Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. It briefly recounts the history of the war, before moving on to reconstruction plans in the wake of the “titanic conflict between the forces of good and evil.”

That throne speech also signalled the intentions of Mackenzie King’s Liberal government to commemorate the efforts and sacrifices of the war with the “beautification of the National Capital and its surrounding area” rather than with a crop of new bronze statues and memorials.

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