November 16

Opening of Parliament & Australian values

On Wednesday, 15 November, 2006 Her Majesty, accompanied by The Duke of Edinburgh, went from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster with a Household Cavalry escort to attend the State Opening of Parliament. Her Majesty went by coach, but on that the journalists seemed confused. One report at least said the coach was the Australian State Coach, at least one other that it was the Irish State Coach. A video clip of The Queen’s Speech can be seen in Jurist , the on line journal of the Pittsburgh Law School. ( I cannot find it on any of the Australian or British multimedia sites. The one on the BBC is last year’s)


Extracts were shown on some Australian television channels. Yet again, the ABC missed the opportunity to show the whole ceremony, which, as the Indian newspaper, The Statesman 17 November, 2006 said, is “certainly not an anachronism.” If the State Opening is not an anachronism to the Indians, it is certainly not to Australians!


 The State Opening of Parliament in its broad terms is followed in all of  our parliaments, although M. Keating on one occasion moved the Opening away from the Senate, whose members he once denounced as “unrepresentative swill.” The State Opening  is a living lesson in constitutional history, law and practice. Just when we are concentrating on Australian values, surely all Australians, young, new and old, ought to be given the opportunity, especially through our national broadcaster, to understand the history of those constitutional principles which are fundamental to the way in which we are governed. We are, after all, one of the world’s most successful democracies; Australians all need to understand how we achieved this. 


(Incidentally, the ACM National Council authorized me to put in a submission on the government’s discussion paper on Australian values, which I did last week. ACM will report on this soon.)


One of the most useful summaries of the State Opening was published on the website of Channel 4 News online on 15 Nov 2006. They listed the following key ceremonial moments in the State Opening of Parliament:-


  • The Opening of Parliament by the Queen is the most spectacular and glittering state occasion of the year.


  • Thousands of people traditionally line the route to watch the monarch in the horse-drawn Irish State Coach, amid scenes of gorgeous pageantry, make her way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster.



  • The Queen has opened Parliament on all but two occasions throughout her reign. These were 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with the Princes Andrew and Edward.



  • The ceremony is steeped in tradition and customs dating back centuries.



  • Before she reads the speech – written by the Cabinet and setting out the Government’s programme for the coming session – the Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest of the royal bodyguards, armed with lanterns, search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a practice which dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605. This is followed by a more scientific police search.



  • Another tradition has been that a government whip has been held "hostage" at Buckingham Palace, to ensure the Queen’s safe return.



  • The Queen, wearing her crown and parliamentary robe, delivers the speech from the throne in the House of Lords. No monarch has set foot in the Commons since Charles I entered and tried to arrest five MPs for treason in 1642.



  • When the Queen arrives at the House of Lords, she is greeted by the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain who, as Keeper of the Royal Palace, wears scarlet court dress and has hanging at his hip the golden key to the Palace.



  • She moves up the Royal Staircase, passing between two lines of dismounted troopers of the Household Cavalry in full dress and with drawn swords.



  • The peers and peeresses are decked out in their ermine-lined finery. For some categories there are not enough gowns to go round, and there is a ballot. The unsuccessful ones – unless they possess their own – must spend more than £100 to hire them for the day – or absent themselves from the ceremony.



  • As she sits on the throne, with the Duke of Edinburgh on her left, the speech is handed to her by the Lord Chancellor from a special silk bag.




  • The Queen is preceded down the route by the regalia, which, have been collected from the Tower of London.



  • As the royal procession arrives at the Sovereign’s Entrance, the Royal Standard is unfurled on the Victoria Tower, replacing the Union Jack, and it remains there while The Queen is in the Palace. 


  • The Queen moves up the Royal Staircase to the Robing Room, then through the Royal Gallery to the Chamber of the House of Lords.  The Queen sits on the throne, with the Duke of Edinburgh on her left and the Prince of Wales, as heir to the throne, on her right. 


  • Before the speech is read, the House of Commons must be summoned to hear the contents. 


  • The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, in his capacity as the Sovereign’s Messenger has the door to the House of Commons slammed in his face before he is allowed through. This serves as a reminder of the Commons’ right to exclude the Sovereign, a right which was abused by Charles I when he entered the Commons and tried to arrest the members. 


  • The Commons proceed to the House of Lords, deliberately chatting casually as they approach in order to show that they stand in no awe of the other place. 


  • Following the speech, Parliament is officially open.


We thank Channel 4 for permission to use print and display these excellent key points. We reiterate our view that the ABC – our national broadcaster – should show the State Opening as a practical and interesting way of bringing young, new and old Australians to an understanding of the workings of the Westminster system which we have inherited and so successfully Australianised. Isn’t that what Australian values are all about?


If you think this way, why don’t you let your MP’s, the ABC, your newspapers, your talkback programmes, and others   know your views?



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