Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thoughts on the state opening

Watching the State Opening of Parliament today, with all its pomp and ceremony, I couldn't help but notice that while it is steeped in ancient tradition, that tradition is overwhelmingly monarchical and anti-democratic. In particular, it gets the relationship between Parliament and the Governor-General arse-backwards. Here's how.

The English Parliament, from which ours descends, was originally subservient to the monarch. The King (and it was always a king back then in the Middle Ages) would summon it when he wanted to impose a new tax, or (less frequently) to seek advice on a new law. A couple of centuries of leverage, a civil war, regicide, and a revolution gave us responsible government: the monarch's Ministers now needed the support of Parliament to govern. But they were still the monarch's Ministers, and it was still (officially, at least) the monarch's Parliament.

This was reflected in today's ceremonies. The Governor-General, standing in for the monarch, summoned Parliament to attend him. He gave a speech, laying out the priorities of "my government". To modern sensibilities, this is simply absurd. It is not the monarch's government - it's the people's. Our ceremonies and procedures should reflect that.

In this day and age, it is inappropriate for the Governor-General to be giving a speech from the throne. The elected Prime Minister should be doing it. And it should be done standing up in the House, where it can be immediately debated. Elected Prime Ministers should not be addressing the people from a throne like an absolute monarch.

These traditions are unlikely to change as long as we are a monarchy. Which is just another reason to get rid of it and shift to a republic: so we can get the relationship between people, Parliament, and figurehead right.