This is the most beautifully crafted constitutional understanding of our Westminster system of government that I have seen in a long time:
The Throne Speech must open a session of Parliament, the constitutional principle being twofold. First, that Senators and MPs cannot gather to provide “advice and consent” to the sovereign unless she invites them to do so. Second, that the sovereign addresses Parliament not with her own words, but with that of her government. It is the sovereign who summons the Parliament, but in practice she is its servant.
The purpose of the Throne Speech is not what is said, but how it is said. The sovereign agrees by convention to take advice from her first minister; thus the prime minister attends, seated by the Governor General. The executive branch — the cabinet — enjoys the confidence of Parliament. Parliament is present, and it is the representatives of Parliament, the Speakers of the Senate and of the House, who address the Governor General. The constitutional achievement of responsible government — the executive being held to account by the legislative — is thus expressed. The judicial branch too is present in the Supreme Court justices.
The whole affair of the opening of Parliament takes place in the upper house, the Senate, rather than the people’s chamber, the Commons. Contrast that to the American model, where the president addresses Congress from the lower house. Ours is an important expression of constitutional monarchy. The people’s will is determinative, as expressed in Parliament, but the people’s will is not the sole source of political authority and constitutional legitimacy. Those roots run deeper, into the history and tradition of the nation, the continuity of which is manifest in the monarchy itself.
State ceremonial can be fussy and formal, but Canadian ceremonial is understated, avoiding altogether any glorification of the state. Partly this is due to Canada’s peculiar constitutional genius — a monarchy with the sovereign abroad. Even the Governor General has only delegated authority. The prime minister gives advice and the two speakers represent their respective chambers. The whole affair is conducted by people who are instruments, not sources, of power. It is a humble constitutional framework, though by now a sturdy one.