This paper presents highlights from a larger study that examines shifts
in twentieth century coverage of the ceremonial Opening of the Ontario
Legislature. The first section summarizes limitations of traditional approaches
to parliamentary openings. The second section identifies changes to ways
in which newspapers have approached and described the legislative opening
over the past century. The concluding section makes generalizations about
parliamentary institutions and political culture.
Communication scholars in Canada have long observed that the media form
our psychic environment, especially with respect to matters beyond our
direct personal experience, a realm into which most aspects of politics
fall.1 British sociologist John B. Thompson uses the term mediated publicness
in drawing attention to ways in which communication technologies such as
newspapers, television, and the internet foster a sense of communal experience
among distant and diverse political observers.2
Clearly mass media are
key to how people conceive of themselves as parts of larger political communities.
But as Thompsons term implies, it is important to bear in mind the fact
that media not only transmit political information, but also help to frame
the very ways in which political reality is understood. The idea is crucial
to parliamentary studies because it suggests that the reality-making functions
of mass media both depend upon and reveal shared understandings of the
meaning of political institutions.
Standard Approaches to Parliamentary Openings
Political science interpretations of the legislative opening in Canada
are conceptually restricted by a prevailing disposition to view the event
as an exclusively parliamentary affair. In what little writing has been
done on the topic, the opening tends to be described as part of: the administration
of parliament, the ceremonial functions of the Crown, or the governments
(explicit or hidden) agenda. Political science textbooks take the same
tack: they interpret the opening as the commencement of a new legislative
session; or as a commemoration of Canadas British heritage; or as a list
of government policy proposals.
It should come as no surprise that parliamentary issues are well represented
in scholarly texts. The opening is a parliamentary affair; but is it exclusively
thus? Bearing in mind the three perspectives from which political scientists
typically view the civic ritual, it becomes apparent that what has been
consistently excluded from debate is the People. The event is the promise
of parliamentary politics, in both literal and figurative senses of the
term. But how is this affair brought to life outside the walls of parliament?
The question is never asked. Although the citizenry is not the only audience
for which the opening is performed, it does constitute a significant audience,
perhaps not by rule, but certainly by convention. Where are citizens located
in relation to the legislative opening?
Opening the Legislature Through the Lens of Mass Media
For the majority of citizens in mass societies such as Canada, the principal
continuing connection to leaders and institutions is provided by the words,
sounds, and images circulating in the mass media.3 Therefore, in practice,
to think about the meaning for citizens of the legislative opening is to
think about news coverage of the legislative opening. How was the meaning
of the Opening of the Legislature in Ontario represented in mainstream
newspapers between 1900 and 2007?4
In the first four decades of the twentieth century, newspapers represented
the ceremony itself the scene and setting at Queens Parkas the most
salient feature of the Opening of the Legislature.
In addition to fulfilling constitutional obligations, the opening was understood
to be a social function. Mere statesmen were backed into the obscurity
of the back seats... while society had its fling. And what a day society
made of it!5 The crush of the crowd, the dazzling attire of guests, and
the stateliness of the royal procession were held up as examples of Ontarios
wealth and prosperity. In 1905, for example, the Toronto Star interpreted
the scene inside the chamber not simply as confirmation of the social
elites ability to throw a good party, but as indisputable proof... that
Ontario is a prosperous and progressive Province.6
News stories tended to be organized in chronological order. They began
with the arrival of spectators on the legislative grounds (many of whom
took up positions in the public galleries between three and five hours
in advance of the Throne Speech), and proceeded through the spectacle of
the official procession, through administrative procedures and the Speech
from the Throne, and concluded at the post-Speech tea-party typically held
in the lieutenant governors suite. The ceremony was described as being
especially important to women, for prior to 1944 it constituted the lone
legitimate opportunity for women to sit on the floor of Ontarios Legislative
Assembly. Even after the extension of the franchise in 1917, womens place
on the floor at the opening was newsworthy: in 1925, for example, a view
from the gallery showed a feminist millennium, a parliament of man become
a parliament of women.7 Newspaper pages for women listed names of hundreds
of guests and described, in detail, the gowns of Ontarios feminine officialdom.8
Coverage of the Throne Speech tended to consist of one or two large stories
dealing with the legislative agenda as a whole. Newspaper analysis did
not parse the contents of the Speech, assess their potential impact on
different social groups, or include reaction from government supporters
and opponents. For example, after one full column describing the scene
and setting at Queens Park, a Star story from 1915 reads, The Speech
from the Throne points out that there is a marked deficit to be met by
the Province, and predicts special taxation to meet the situation. Other
measures predicted are the Moratorium Act, changes in the Workmens Compensation
Act, amendments to the Liquor License Act, improved boiler inspection,
and good roads legislation.9 It is almost impossible to imagine a time
when talk of provincial deficits and taxes came after details about the
full State ceremonial and the gubernatorial procession, not to mention
a time when the rituals policy features were unaccompanied by reaction
from politicians and extra-parliamentary associations. Yet, as a rule,
critical policy analysis was suspended for the day.
Drawing on the language of vaudevillian show-business to explain the meaning
and popularity of the event at Queens Park, in 1905 the Telegram opined
that The opening of a Legislature is a combination of a society parade,
a military pageant and a political demonstration. A promoter who could
enroll all these interests on behalf of his scheme would not need to write
home for money.10 Although made partly in jest, the observation neatly
summarizes the way in which newspapers in the first half of the twentieth
century framed the legislative opening. Certainly policy promises and political
parties were understood to be central parts of the affair; but in general,
newspapers portrayed the rituals multiple, at times contradictory, and
far from exclusively legislative meanings to be its defining quality.
The pivotal trend in postwar coverage of the legislative opening has been
the rise to dominance of the Speech from the Throne. In todays store of
assumed journalistic knowledge, the significance of the proposed legislative
agenda has become such that even reporters in the Queens Park press gallery
are unlikely to refer to the opening as anything other than Throne Speech
day.11 Taken as evidence of conceptual shifts transpiring over the course
of the twentieth century, this lexical revision suggests that the meaning
of the event has changed not in degree but in kind. The Table shows that
the dominant journalistic storyline of earlier times was turned on its
head in the postwar era.
Comparing Themes of Newspaper Coverage of the Legislative Opening
Total number of items
Primary theme is scene
Primary theme is Throne Speech/partisan politics
Globe and Mail
Toronto Daily Star
Toronto Evening Telegram / Sun
Contemporary interpretations of the legislative openings significance
are exemplified by newspaper pages dedicated exclusively to the Speech
from the Throne. These Throne Speech pages (or page) reside somewhere
within a newspapers first section. Though known to carry more than a dozen
news items on different policy proposals, this new form of news is distinguished
by a banner running across the top of the page that unifies disparate stories
and images under a central theme of, for example, Bills boring blueprint;12
The Tory Speech from the Throne;13 Ontario Throne Speech,14 or simply
The proliferation and professionalization of Throne Speech analysis brings
with it an unexpected consequence: namely, greater interest in items absent
from the Speech. The legislative opening news conference, a development
of the television era, is the typical place where such absences are noted.
The news conference is significant for two reasons. First, increasingly
aggressive news conference questions force the government to account for
its Throne Speech in ways not demanded by parliamentary procedure. It should
be mentioned, however, that news conferences also furnish the government
with an unprecedented public forum in which to promote legislative plans.
Second, from the perspective of partisan politics, the news conference
establishes what the House itself does notnamely, an opening-day platform
for criticism from members of the parliamentary opposition.
Neither 1950 nor 1955 coverage included opposition quotations; yet in each
case sampled after 1960, all newspapers included at least one opposition
voice reacting to the Speech from the Throne. On four different occasions
in the postwar sample, opposition quotations appeared in six stories in
a single year. In contrast to early twentieth century coverage, when the
opening was understood to be a break from traditional partisan scripts,
the event has been incorporated into the partisan battle that ravages Ontario
politics every day. This trend is bolstered by the postwar emergence of
provocative opinion columnists who emphasize and assess opening-day partisan
Finally, since the 1970s, coverage of the Opening of the Legislature has
included new types of engagement from extra-parliamentary individuals and
groups. For example, a 1990 front-page story in the Globe and Mail begins:
If Vyrn Peterson has his way, Ontarios newest nuclear power plant will
be built just down the road from this cluttered welding shop and home on
the Trans-Canada Highway in Blind River.16 The story is written in anticipation
of that days Speech from the Throne and the governments impending decision
on whether to expand nuclear power generation. But who is Vyrn Peterson?
He is not a politician; he is a concerned citizen. Newsreaders also hear
from Ed Burt, a beef and pig farmer, who argues that the idea of nuclear
power in Blind River is just plain stupid. Later in the story the vice-president
of the Canadian Nuclear Association adds an industry perspective to discussion.
In sum, hours before the Throne Speech was delivered in the Chamber, news
coverage revealed extra-parliamentary stakeholders debating the provinces
If the legislative opening was once a representation of a whole hierarchical
social order centred around High Society, it is now symbolic of the marketplace
of competing ideas in an ideal liberal-pluralist society. This and other
preceding observations call out for further explanation. But the purpose
of the foregoing discussion has not been to explain but to point out previously
Implications for Parliamentary Studies
The case study supports the claim that newspaper coverage reveals a shift
in social knowledge about the centrepiece of the parliamentary calendar.
In light of lessons learned from Ontarios legislative opening, what generalizations
can be made about the benefits of studying parliament through the lens
of mass media? First, a mediated approach to legislatures offers insight
into the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of Canadas central political
institutions. In contrast to the predictable results of trying to pin down
exactly what the legislative opening is, a project that works to demonstrate
ways in which the ritual has been variously depicted in news coverage allows
the opening to be viewed as both practical and ceremonial, anachronistic
and relevant, capable of producing both arousal and quiescence. This perspective
sees policy and posturing, plans and uncertainties, fears and assurances.
It notes promises and failures, power and fragility, past and future. Research
on legislatures in Canada has never been highly theoretical.17 The trend
is borne out by Malloys recent call for a new generation of legislative
studies that moves beyond traditional conceptions of responsible government
and toward greater engagement with alternative conceptions of representation
and democratic accountability.18
A mediated approach to parliament provides
the theoretical flexibility required to explore the fact that parliament
is constantly performing multiple roles and exercising multiple forms of
Second, the case study suggests that a mediated approach can be used to
shed light upon the historical development of parliament. To be sure, not
all coverage from earlier times is as rich as the Toronto Globe story of
1930, in which that years legislative opening is described through the
eyes of the ghost of the late British parliamentarian and diarist, Samuel
Pepys (1633-1703). However, the Pepys piece is a uniquely puzzling example
through which a more general point can be made: namely, that popular conceptions
of parliament are not fixed forever and always. On the contrary, they are
historically-situated and can change over time. Through modern eyes historical
coverage can seem odd; but recall the words of the great cultural historian
Robert Darnton: When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual,
or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where
it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning.19
The story told by Pepys ghost begins to make more sense after being viewed
in light of the fact that until at least World War II the worship of the
monarchy and the British Empire enjoyed almost cult status in Canadian
society.20 The witness to numerous state openings at the mother of Parliament,
Pepys was an ideal judge of imperial pomp and circumstance in the Dominion.
(His verdict? High praise all around.) It is beyond the scope of this paper
to elaborate on the connections between the legislative opening and British
culture in Ontario. But it is worth pointing out that the connection was
made clearer after reading the Pepys story with the following questions
in mind: Who produced this story, for whom was it written, and why? What
does the story reveal about the authority of the producer? What does it
suggest about the expectations of the reader? And most important, what
are the implied messages of the storythe things that are not stated explicitly
but have to be assumed if the story is to make sense?
A list of questions is a fitting way to introduce this papers final point,
for the peculiarities and shifts observed in coverage of the legislative
opening demonstrate that a mediated approach generates new questions about
how parliamentary authority operates at the level of culture. At the risk
of obscuring the practical value of this idea under a layer of theoretical
jargon, some clarification is necessary because culture is such a highly
contested term. For the purposes of this argument, culture can be defined
as a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means
of which [humans] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge
about and attitudes toward life.21
There is no need to characterize citizens as witless dupes who will believe
anything they see on television in order to appreciate the fact that a
mediated approach to parliament brings citizens a step into the frame of
analysis. Asking questions about media coverage is an essential part of
identifying shared but unstated assumptions about what political institutions
and actors mean to the people that they represent. Such questions offer
rich opportunities for thinking about parliament through the eyes of the
person (with the paper)-on-the-street. This is not to say that a creative
thought experiment is a substitute for political efficacy. But if research
on legislatures is to remain relevant during an era in which communication
technologies are rapidly becoming both more sophisticated and more widely
used, it must develop new ways of engaging legislative politics in mass
mediated forms. To those who say that culture is the responsibility of
some other analytical jurisdiction, this paper responds that media coverage
is no less part of what constitutes parliament than budget day and division
bells. Experts on parliament are uniquely positioned to blaze new paths
in the field; they are, after all, experts on parliament.
What parts of parliament are covered closely, and what kind of information
about their form and function is explicit and implicit in news coverage?
What features of parliament go unreported that ought to attract greater
media attention; and do different jurisdictions offer ideas about how to
improve the situation in Canada? Is it possible to identify recurring errors
in mass mediated descriptions of parliament, and what impact does this
have on Canadian democracy? What about the Canadian Senatehow are its
forms and functions framed by mass media? What similarities and differences
can be identified among news coverage of different provincial legislatures?
How do extra-parliamentary groups such as women, immigrants, chambers of
commerce, children, labour unions, First Nations, or city councils figure
into news coverage of parliament and has coverage changed over time?
David E. Smiths Donner prize-winning book on the House of Commons offers
an encouraging sign that these sorts of questions are indeed becoming more
central to parliamentary studies in Canada. In the penultimate chapter,
Smith asks: Do the media privilege one democratic model or rhetoric over
another, that is, parliamentary, or constitutional, or electoral?22 A
recent trend in newspaper coverage of the Opening of the Legislature offers
one example of the press functioning in ways that promote a model of Smiths
electoral democracy. Recall that since the Second World War opening-day
coverage has become increasingly focused on debate among parliamentarians,
extra-parliamentary groups, and journalists, in what might be called an
expanded sphere of legislative politics. As the role of media in facilitating
political debate is cemented, the Assembly as a place has lost some of
its centrality and authority. Acknowledging the limitations of a single
case study, however, this paper is content to conclude with Smith: these
questions require more research.
Depending on what topics and scales of analysis are taken up by future
researchers, different mediated approaches to parliament will require different
types of engagement with scholarship on mass media and society. Some students
of parliament may want to read widely in literature on communication and
culture before formulating new research questions. Recent work examining
media coverage of elections, political advertising, and issues of race
and gender demonstrates that many political scientists already have.23
Others may choose to examine media texts more informally, surveying news
coverage not as a method meant to produce conclusions, but as a way of
inspiring initial questions. Regardless of the specific theoretical and
methodological traditions that inform new mediated approaches, the study
of parliament will be strengthened as more parliamentary observers reflect
upon the ways in which their objects of study appear through the lens of
1. Frederick J. Fletcher and Daphne Gottlieb Taras, Images and issues:
The mass media and politics in Canada, in Canadian politics in the 1990s,
ed. Ed. M.S. Whittington and G. Williams, Nelson, Scarborough, 1990,
2. John B. Thompson, The media and modernity: A social theory of the media
Polity Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 126.
3. Robert Everett and Frederick J. Fletcher, The mass media and political
communication in Canada, in Communications in Canadian society, 5th ed.
Ed. C. McKie and B.D. Singer, Thompson Educational Publishing, Toronto,
4. The body of texts examined in the larger study consists of 660 newspaper
items drawn from 4 Ontario dailies: the Toronto Evening Telegram (Telegram
from 1949 to 1971), Toronto Globe (Globe and Mail since 1936), Toronto
Daily Star (Star since 1971), and Toronto Sun. The reason for examining
these particular publications is the combination of their ongoing focus
on Ontario politics and their high rates of circulation. Using a method
of maximum variation sampling, the principles guiding text-selection were
as follows: beginning in 1900 and proceeding in five-year increments, the
textual sample consists of all news items relating to the first legislative
opening in a given year, appearing in any part of the Globe, Star, Telegram,
and Sun, published on the day of the Throne Speech, as well as the day
following the opening ceremonies. The reason that the sample ends in a
year without a 0 or 5 at the end is because there was no legislative
opening in 2000, which meant that the first opening of 2001 was analyzed
instead. Five years after that there was no legislative opening in 2006,
meaning that the corpus concludes with coverage from 2007. Methodological
literature on news narrative and news framing informed the preparation
of a coding schedule that includes both qualitative and quantitative categories.
After two rounds of experimental coding with the purpose of developing
a systematic approach, a single coding sheet was used to analyze all 660
items in the corpus. Five interviews with journalists and other people
working at Queens Park supplement textual research. For a copy of the
final coding schedule, please contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Toronto Evening Telegram, February 16, 1915, p. 4.
6. Ibid., March 23, 1905, p. 7.
7. Toronto Daily Star, February 11, 1925, p. 7.
8. Toronto Evening Telegram, February 11, 1925, p. 9.
9. Toronto Daily Star, February 16, 1915, p. 2.
10. Toronto Evening Telegram, March 23, 1905, p. 9.
11. Thomas Walkom, interview by the author, 23 April 2007.
12. Toronto Sun, March 12, 1980, pp 3, 62-63.
13. Toronto Star, June 5, 1985, pp. A16, A17.
14. Globe and Mail, November 21, 1990, p. A8.
15. Toronto Star, November 30, 2007, p. A19.
16. Globe and Mail, November 20, 1990.
17. Michael M. Atkinson and Paul G. Thomas, Studying the Canadian Parliament,
Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 18, no. 3, 1993, p.424; see also Mark
Sproule-Jones, The enduring colony? Political institutions and political
science in Canada, Publius, Vol. 14, no. 1, 1984, pp. 93-108.
18. Jonathan Malloy, The responsible government approach and its effect
on Canadian legislative studies, Canadian Study of Parliament Group, Parliamentary
Perspectives, Vol. 5 2002, p. 13.
19. Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre... and other episodes in French
cultural history, Vintage Books, New York, 1985, p. 5.
20. Daniel Francis, National dreams: Myth, memory, and Canadian history,
Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 1997, p. 53.
21. Clifford Geertz, The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays by
Clifford Geertz, Basic Books, New York, 1973, p. 89.
22. David E. Smith, The peoples House of Commons: Theories of democracy
in contention, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2007, p. 133.
23. See for example: Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everitt, Filtering
the female: Television news coverage of the 1993 Canadian leaders debates, Women & Politics, Vol. 21, no. 4 2000, pp. 105-31; Frederick J. Fletcher,
ed., Reporting the campaign: Election coverage in Canada. Vol. 22 of the
research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party
Financing, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 1991; Jonathan W. Rose, Making pictures
in our heads: Government advertising in Canada, Praeger, Westport, 2000;
Linda Trimble, Gender, political leadership and media visibility: Globe
and Mail coverage of Conservative Party of Canada leadership contests,
Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. 40, no. 4, 2007, pp. 969-93;
Yasmin Jiwani, Discourses of denial: Mediations of race, gender, and violence,
UBC Press, Vancouver.