The throne speech is an event in certain monarchies where the reigning sovereign, or his or her representative, reads a prepared speech to the members of parliament when a session is opened outlining the government’s agenda for the session. In Commonwealth realms, the throne speech is an oration that forms part of a ceremony marking the opening of parliament. According to some records the ceremony goes back to Medieval times. Other sources place its origins in the 16th century when England was an absolute monarchy. The monarch would sometimes speak to parliament in person but between 1347 and 1363 the speech from the throne was given by various figures on the sovereign’s behalf.
In today’s UK, within the tenets of constitutional monarchy the speech is written by the sitting cabinet with or without the reader’s participation, and outlines the legislative program for the new parliamentary season. Due to the parliamentary tradition of the sovereign being barred from the lower chamber, in those realms possessing a bicameral parliament the ceremony takes place in the legislature’s upper chamber, with members of both houses in attendance. In England the speech is typically read by the reigning sovereign at the State Opening of Parliament.
The monarch may, however, appoint a delegate to perform the task in his or her place: Queen Elizabeth did this in 1959 and in 1963 when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively, the Lord Chancellor delivering the address instead. In countries that share with the UK the same person as their respective sovereign, the Speech from the Throne will usually be read on the monarch’s behalf by his or her viceroy, the governor general, although the monarch may deliver the address in person.
In British overseas territories that have instituted the practice the relevant governor general delivers the speech. It is considered improper for the audience, including members of parliament, to show support or disapproval for any content of the speech while it is being read, as such is reserved for the debate and vote that follows in legislative chambers or chamber. Protest, however, has been expressed during a throne speech, such as when in 2011 Brigette DePepe, a paige in the Canadian Senate, interrupted Governor General David Johnston’s reading of the Speech from the Throne by standing and holding a sign calling for the then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper to be stopped.
Remarkably, although in Canada the government of the day writes the speech, the governor general is invited to contribute introductory material dealing with his or her own activities and with royal visits. It is unlikely such courtesy is extended to Saint Lucia’s governors general. The current occupier of Government House has on at least one occasion made adjustments to the speech handed her at the opening of parliament: in 2006 the original speech stated that Taiwan and Beijing both operated embassies in New York. In truth, Taiwan operates only a trade mission there. By not parroting her prepared speech Dame Pearlette saved Sir John, attendant ambassadors, and the nation at large a major embarrassment.
The nation was not so lucky, however, when in 1998 the governor general Sir George Mallet delivered a cold reading of his speech written on behalf of the government by a clearly over-rated public servant. The House audience was aghast when Sir George announced that several allegations of corruption by the government of Sir John, in which he had served as deputy prime minister for over 30 years, would be subjected to a commission of inquiry in the months ahead. (It later emerged the allegations were unfounded and, by some assessments, absolutely vindictive!)
The throne speech that Dame Pearlette read at the opening of the first session of the eleventh parliament of Saint Lucia offered neither thrills nor spills. If those who had handed him an 11-6 House key on June 6, following a campaign of just six weeks, looked forward to beef soufflé, what they got on Tuesday was mainly crust—possibly because the new prime minister Allen Chastanet wished in due course to deliver personally the missing ingredients.
Nothing about the speech suggested crowing in the aftermath of a surprising victory. In truth a problem-plagued United Workers Party had somehow managed after several failed attempts to get its act together at the last minute and dominate the June 6 polls. For the most part it was preachy-preachy, full of déjà vu and cringe-worthy clichés: “If we accept the premise that the results of a general election reflect the free will of the people then at the end of the process there are no losers. We are all winners through our participation in this process because we have demonstrated to the world we can continue to conduct our business in a manner which demonstrates maturity, civility and mutual self-respect. We can all celebrate with pride, with passion, with love.” (Say that to the rabble that on Tuesday predictably showed up in Constitution Park!)
Another slice of stale fish freshly wrapped: “Saint Lucia, notwithstanding its size, is a very diverse country. Its diversity is reflected not simply in terms of the political persuasion of its citizens but there are different social strata defined by varying income levels; people live in different communities where the conditions differ; there are youth, middle-aged and elderly persons, male, female and many more characteristics. Our citizens also have varying aspirations and different objectives in their lives. My government is for all . . .”
How many times have governors general, with straight faces, laid this kind of waffle on patient Saint Lucian ears?
“The ultimate goals are to improve the delivery of public services now and in the future . . . there is so much to be done and so little resources with which to undertake them. Some tough decisions have to be made . . . On every occasion when a new government assumes office there is much discussion of a new approach to governance only for us to return to the same old ways . . . My government is committed to putting in place the appropriate parliamentary sub-committees to review legislation before presentation to parliament. This will provide greater opportunity for dialogue and for consensus on both sides of the House. We will function on the basis of mutual respect and with due regard to the conventions of parliament and our Constitution. This government undertakes to facilitate the office of Leader of the Opposition in playing its rightful role . . . We believe all parliamentarians on all sides of the House be given diplomatic passports and my government will take the necessary steps to make this happen.” (Will this particular generosity extend to former MPs? Not a word, not a word, not a word on that. But the smell of rat is in my nostrils!)
At last the governor general arrived at a matter of grave concern to the populace: the Constitution. Dame Pearlette promised her government had “listened to the voices of the people”—the same voices that a previous parliament had unanimously declared off key!—“and during this session of parliament will re-open the Report of the Constitution Reform Commission for public discussion.”
“My government is deeply concerned about the state of the justice system,” the governor general reassured the nation, “and is considering some short-term options, including temporary location of institutions.”
Really? The GG also touched on “a very active legislative agenda for the new season of parliament.” This last line may have been lifted whole from the GG’s 1997 throne speech.
Finally, something with meaning for the voters, the private sector in particular: “My government has commenced steps toward our objective of first reducing the rate of the Value Added Tax in the short term, with a view to eventually eliminating it altogether. Discussions have been initiated with regional and international institutions that will help us conduct a true assessment of the state of the finances of Saint Lucia. It will be recalled that the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for the current year were tabled and passed by the out-going administration without presentation of the policy considerations that informed those Estimates. My government finds it necessary, therefore, to undertake a comprehensive review of those Estimates in order to determine their realism and how they affect the priority issues . . . It is expected that my government will be in a position to announce the new VAT rate before the end of October 2016.”
Only the last line mattered, albeit it merely signals an expectation that may or may not materialize. Perhaps the prime minister will be less wishy-washy on the subject!
The governor general went on: “The moratorium on the payment of taxes on residential property will be implemented in the next fiscal year.”
Additionally, the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association had “agreed to partner with Saint Lucia in the provision of training that will result in approximately a thousand Saint Lucians finding employment in the cruise industry annually for the next five years.”
Armed only with her script, GG now confronted the largest elephant in the room: “One of the most immediate problems which my government must contend with is addressing the situation which faces our country, and our police force in particular, arising from the IMPACS report. The present circumstances which jeopardize our ability to secure assistance for our under-resourced and hardworking police officers are untenable and cannot be allowed to persist. My government proposes to confront this situation in the first instance by appointing a tribunal which will review the coroner’s inquest process and outline a road map to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.”
What exactly does the inquest process have to do with the IMPACS report and its apparent abandonment by the previous government, a major factor in the UWP’s election victory?
In all events, the above was the official reaction to “one of the most immediate problems” facing the government. But then the governor general seemed happy to read that “we have always been at our best in times of adversity and no matter how bad things have been, we’ve always emerged triumphant in the end.”
What would local throne speeches be without heart-stopping hyperbole? Conceivably, the new prime minister will have more to say on IMPACS when the House next meets in August or September. In the meantime we can all speculate on how much longer a nation can hold its breath!