Wigs, robes, hats and shouting: State Openings of Parliament

It’s Christmas time, and I thought it was time for some lighter topics to cover. So, here’s a compilation of State Openings of Parliament from across the Commonwealth!

For those who are uncertain as to what that is, or why it happens, parliament is opened at the start of a ‘session’ of parliament which varies in length across the Commonwealth. Traditionally, the elected and appointed officials assemble with top judges and diplomats to hear the speech from the throne given by the monarch or Her representative. This speech details some of the government’s agenda for the coming session and usually has quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. At the end of a session, many of the bills before parliament die on the order paper – private bills (exceptions to general law) and, in some countries, private member’s bills can survive, but I don’t think anywhere allows all government bills to survive the ending of a session.

A session may begin with the opening, but it ends with a ‘prorogation’. It’s another little ceremony which is less well-known, but still interesting. That’s for another time though.

NB: I don’t own any of the videos I have linked to on this page – where I know the original producer of the video, I will credit them, but none of them are anything to do with me.

United Kingdom:

Sessions in the United Kingdom last for a year under usual circumstances with an 18-month session at the beginning of a parliament and a 6-month one at the end because Queen’s Speeches in non-election years take place in November, though the current session is two years long, ostensibly a transitional arrangement to bed in the transfer of the annual Queen’s Speech to May (though that doesn’t really hold water – the government admitted it was to ensure all the bills from this session could be passed).

The video content comes from the BBC, and features a wide variety of colourful costumes, wigs and ancient titles.



The devolved parliaments and assemblies don’t have Speeches from the Throne; the first ministers themselves give a summary of their legislative agenda.

Canada:

Sessions in Canada are irregular – some last a year, some two or more. The video content was produced by CBC – watch out for the various hats, both bicorne and tricorne.



Taking a glance at some provincial parliaments, it becomes more difficult to find the ceremonial outside the actual speech – which interestingly takes place in the elected chamber as no Canadian province or territory has an upper house. While Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba show the speech, the best example of the ceremonial I can find is of British Columbia’s Lieutenant-Governor – watch for the funky staff which is unfortunately not a regular accompaniment to the ceremony:


The first video comes from the BC government’s own Youtube channel, the second seems to have been originally produced by something with an official logo – at a guess I’d say it’s the BC legislative assembly, but I don’t know.

Australia:

Australia did away with regular sessions back in 1925, a session since then in normal circumstances coinciding with the length of the parliament. From 1961 to 1993, parliament stopped being prorogued even for the dissolution! Amazingly, there is no video of the whole spectacle online. There are bits, however, and I’ll post them here. Note the relative absence of costumes, wigs and hats.

Not sure where this content came from (perhaps ABC?).



Australia’s states also have the Speech from the Throne which I’m told follow the Australian federal model, but I can’t find videos of these. Queensland is an obvious exception as a unicameral parliament – as such, the Governor arrives to find the MPs and associated judicial and diplomatic representatives already waiting for him or her in the old Legislative Council chamber.

New Zealand:

There is only one session per parliament in New Zealand; a convention that took hold in the mid-90s after annual sessions were phased out in 1984. New Zealand’s excellent website inthehouse.co.nz has the video for the latest State Opening which happened only a few days ago. The Speaker has quite a spectacular wig.







Other Commonwealth realms and British Overseas Territories:

Here’s a snippet from Bermuda’s Speech from the Throne, which in addition to featuring a quite frankly amazing hat also appears to take place outdoors. Note how short it is too. This was made by Bernews

A news report has some juicy bits of ceremonial for Saint Lucia’s Throne Speech (produced by HTS Channel 4).

In Antigua and Barbuda, the Governor-General makes the speech in a ceremonial robe as can be seen in this snippet of footage, presumably by the uploader.

St Kitts and Nevis has a unicameral parliament with a House called the National Assembly, and you can see the ceremonial here as the Governor-General enters the House which contains both elected and appointed members; a strange sight for those used to the more traditional barring of the head of state. Also featuring another delightfully feathered hat, this time a bicorne. It seems to be from ZIZ, the national broadcaster.


Opening Parliament – Similarities and differences:

Most Governors-General open parliament after inspecting the troops, but the Queen doesn’t do this at Westminster. Instead, she arrives with the troops. In Canada the prime minister walks in the procession with the Governor-General, but in most other countries the prime minister is with his or her House. In the UK, the Great Officers of State like the Lord Chancellor, Lord Privy Seal, and Lord President of the Council and other sinecure offices like the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, often held by politicians, walk in procession with the Sovereign*. With the absence of an upper House, the New Zealand and Queensland parliaments takes a walk up to the old Legislative Council chamber, but the provincial unicameral Canadian parliaments simply take it in their lower House as do some unicameral island realms, at least one not having much ceremony at all in the chamber – a simple ‘Make way for His/Her Honour the Lieutenant-Governor!’. Black rod exists in the major Commonwealth realms, uniforms vary and in New Zealand he takes a different rod to knock on the door with for a reason that I can’t fathom**. The door slamming is done in all major bicameral Commonwealth realms and in New Zealand. New Zealand also has to physically open the bar of the House.

As the MPs, MLAs, and MHRs who travel to an upper chamber do so, they are often rowdy, taking their time to represent their freedom as elected representatives. Once they arrive, they must stand at the back of the chamber in the UK, Canada and Australian bicameral states behind the bar of the Senate/House/Council chamber. In New Zealand, Queensland and some island states they sit in a chamber or even sometimes outside. In New Zealand, the MPs are actually kept in their seats not only by locking the door but putting barriers up the aisle – this isn’t to my knowledge found anywhere else, though it’s possible the door is locked in other realms.

In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Canadian provincial parliaments and some Australian States the prime minister sits next or near to the Queen’s representative and sometimes even hand her the speech personally. In the UK, the bewigged and robed Lord Chancellor gives the speech to the Queen while the prime minister is stood behind the bar of the House of Lords.

While most male Governor-Generals wear a senior local military uniform (some, in the island realms, look remarkably colonial), the male Lieutenant-Governor in British Columbia wears court dress – in this case, the Windsor uniform.

A few more general thoughts: the UK and at the least British Columbia have much more shouting than the rest – everywhere else does it much more calmly. Not entirely sure why that is, but I’m not criticising it. While strange at first, I’ve rather warmed to it now.

The Origins

The Queen/Governors-General/Governors traditionally give their speeches in the upper house because the Sovereign, back in the 17th Century and before, could take part in the proceedings of the House of Lords and sometimes did. Originally, the House of Lords developed from the King’s Council after all. When the Sovereign used to summon parliament for a new session, whether it was after an election or not, they announced their reasons for summoning parliament – years could go by without parliament being summoned.

The tradition of Black rod having the door slammed in his face is often attributed to the attempted arrest by King Charles and the Serjeant-at-Arms of five MPs in 1642, but that was actually the origin of the rule that the Sovereign could not enter the House of Commons. The door-slamming comes from a combination of 1628, when the Commons took offence that they were summoned by someone of lesser status than Black rod, and 1641, when Black rod entered without his rod and before he was invited. The Commons took exception and required that he knock three times and await the invitation to enter, slamming the door in his face to make a point.

*Held by the Justice Secretary, the Leader of the House of Commons, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House of Lords respectively. The current Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – for the first time in recorded history – as the Lord President of the Council chose to stay in the Commons so that he would appear with his coalition partner David Cameron rather than walk in procession with the Queen.

**Interestingly, Black rod in Victoria didn’t have a black rod until 1951. Before then, he had his back to the door and kicked it with his heel three times!

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