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

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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.

Cardus celebrates 20 years and a unique place in the policy world

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Cardus is a think tank of unlikely origins fighting an unlikely battle in our individualistic society.

With humble beginnings in 1974 as the Work Research Foundation, toiling alongside and in support of the Christian Labour Association of Canada, it was originally a vehicle for the odd conference or book.

It existed that way for two decades, a quirky research charity working alongside a Christian trade union, inspired by the Christian Democratic tradition in Europe. But in 1996, a grant came in from the Donner Canadian Foundation that allowed the Work Research Foundation to dig into freedom of association in Canadian labour relations and, over the course of that work, a bigger idea was born.

Five years later, Cardus came into existence in the fall of 2000, with Michael Van Pelt as the first full-time employee and president of the think tank. Ray Pennings, who had secured the initial grant in 1996, and masterminded the project with Van Pelt in the late ’90s, became the executive vice-president.

Having both explored the world of politics, Pennings and Van Pelt had come to realize that the big ideas come from outside the system, not from within.

“We increasingly came to the realization that when you apply a long-term theory of influence on that work, we realized that we needed to have a deeper and more robust platform for long-term influence,” said Van Pelt. “That obviously turned out to be right. Political parties have taken on very narrow functions. The ideas that we think are important in today’s society needed a different kind of platform to advance and create robust dialogue.”

They’ve seen their ideas filtering into provincial labour legislation, the K-12 education world, and even into a Conservative Party that looks a lot more Cardus-friendly than it did a decade ago.

The two friends now lead a staff of 30 people, with a budget of $5 million, and work from an office three doors down from the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Cardus is celebrating its 20th birthday (a year late thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic) and, last night, former Governor General David Johnston spoke at a gala event to ring in the anniversary.

Our future leadership

To celebrate the occasion, Cardus commissioned a poll to get a sense of how Canada’s future and present leaders feel about the country and where it’s headed.

Some of the results are surprising and, for a faith-based think tank, they may represent opportunities.

The poll, which Cardus conducted with the Angus Reid Institute, divides the respondents up into two categories: leaders and everyone else. By kicking off the survey with a series of psychographic questions that research has shown relate to leadership ability, the poll shows how young leaders may end up shaping our country and how our current leadership class feels about the job they are currently doing.

Canada’s young leaders’ thoughts on religion in society may cut against conventional wisdom.

In a country where people think religious influence in society is waning and the share of people identifying as Christian is declining, Canadians aged 18 to 29 are actually more inclined to want God and religion in public life.

More than 40 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 29 think people in public life should feel free to speak and act based on their religious beliefs. That number drops to 23 percent for leaders between the age of 55 and 64 and 28 percent for leaders over the age of 65.

The polling data is drawn from a survey conducted at the end of July among 4,094 respondents to an online survey. For comparison purposes, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Younger Canadians are also more likely to believe there is a role for religion in political activism, although Canadians, in general, think that’s a bad idea. Among leaders older than 65-years-old, 74 percent agree that “there is no role for religion in political activism,” with that number dropping to 70 percent among leaders aged 18 to 29, which is roughly consistent with the average among Canadians.

Pennings sees reason for hope in the polling data

“When you take a look at the growing demographics in Canada, they indeed are people who are actually taking faith and the application of faith and public life more seriously than the previous generation,” said Pennings.

“There is an overall shift towards the non-religious side. But that’s a shift out of the middle. When we did our first survey, the very religious number was at 19 percent and in this survey, it’s still at 19 percent,” he said.

The area where younger and older Canadians disagree the most is on the achievements of past generations. In general, older Canadians think they’ve done a pretty good job and younger Canadians are much less sure.

Among leaders older than 65, about 87 percent think the legacy of the Baby Boomers is positive, while only 31 percent of leaders aged 18 to 29 agree with them.

One thing older Canadians will admit, though, is that they’ve been pretty lucky. Seventy-four percent of leaders older than 65 say their generation has been lucky and had plenty of opportunities.

With young leaders holding a relatively skeptical view of their predecessors, it may be no surprise that they are more inclined to tear things down and start fresh than build on the successes of the past.

Among leaders aged 18 to 29, nearly half think the best approach to change is “starting new and restructuring society differently,” rather than building on the achievements of past generations or fixing the mistakes of past generations.

The connecting road

What makes Cardus an unlikely think tank? The clue is in the name.

The Cardus was an ancient north-south road connecting the people of Roman cities to their public spaces.

While modern conservatives are comfortable pointing out all the different ways that government is the problem, or is not the solution to a problem, it’s less comfortable actually explaining what is the solution.

For Cardus, the answer is found in culture, religion, and civil society, which means we need to build a road that connects these things to politics and policymaking.

“When you don’t have an emphasis on the institutions between individuals and government, you’re left with just the bipolar choice of government or individuals,” said Pennings. “On the one hand, government can’t solve all your problems. But there are other institutions in society when they’re healthy, they can.”

Even as the Western world appears to be rapidly secularizing, Pennings and Van Pelt believe the desires and beliefs of Canadians are still fundamentally the same.

“Families still want to be stable. Parents still want to love their children and care for them in the best way possible. Economic wealth doesn’t bring you happiness,” said Van Pelt.

“We need to continue making the argument that thoughtful perspectives on faith, especially the Christian tradition, have something to offer those yearnings today.”