Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

11 July 2012

God Save the Queen, revisited

This was just published in the 9 July issue of Christian Courier:

Just ahead of the celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee last month, the Toronto Star had the bad judgement to publish an article by Bob Hepburn, titled, The Queen: three steps for Canada to replace the monarchy. He proposes a three-step process, the first of which would be a national referendum on this question: “Should Canada sever ties with the British monarchy?”

From the outset Hepburn has revealed his shaky understanding of our constitution, as revealed in this misleading question. This country’s ties to the “British” monarchy were ended as long ago as 1931 with the Statute of Westminster. Since that time Canada has had its own Crown and at present shares the occupant of that office with 15 other Commonwealth Realms, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. We have no ties remaining with the British monarchy.

Nevertheless, let us for a moment follow Hepburn’s proposal and see where it might take us. To alter the status of Canada’s Queen would require the approval of both chambers of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures under section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Thus far our attempts at constitutional change under this unanimity requirement have been spectacularly unsuccessful, as we experienced with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. A referendum on even a properly-worded question would probably not receive majority support in every province. A provincial government would be unwise to ignore the advice of the voters.

However, for our present purposes we shall assume that this unanimity is within reach. Then what? We would have to decide what to put in place of the monarchy. Perhaps a state presidency would replace the governor general’s office. How then would the president attain his or her position? The Indian president is elected by the members of both parliamentary chambers and of the state legislatures. We could do the same, but it seems unlikely that Canadians would want to leave the selection of a new head of state in the hands of politicians, which does not differ that much from how our current governor general is appointed.

The obvious democratic alternative would be to have the voters elect directly a new state president. However, a popularly-elected president would enjoy a democratic legitimacy that would effectively increase his or her power within the political system as a whole. This could give Canada a constitution similar to that of the French Fifth Republic in which executive power is shared – and sometimes contested – by president and prime minister. Might our new president take initiatives against the advice of the government of the day? In the absence of explicit constitutional constraints on the office, this is a distinct possibility.

We could, of course, abolish the office of prime minister altogether and have only an elected president, who would be responsible directly to the people rather than to parliament. Obviously this would take us into American territory. The United States has functioned quite well for 225 years with a separation of powers between president and congress. But Canada is not the United States. Our political traditions have developed differently in accordance with the central constitutional principle of responsible government. Under responsible government the prime minister and cabinet must retain the confidence of the House of Commons in order to keep governing. To abandon this principle, with all of its attendant usages and customs, would not be wise at this late stage.

More significant, however, is the fact that prime ministerial and royal functions really are different and require different offices. Nearly four years ago in this space, I observed that Americans had elected Barack Obama because of his kingly qualities and his promises to seek consensus and unify the nation. Since then, however, Obama, in typical prime ministerial fashion, has pursued divisive policies which, among other things, threaten the religious freedom of faith-based institutions.

Unlike Americans, we in Canada already enjoy a political system that quite sensibly separates these two executive functions into distinct offices. Our constitutional monarchy has served us very well for centuries, and we have every reason to celebrate it rather than to entertain ill-considered proposals for its abolition.

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1 Comments:

  • You could do what Brazil did in the early 19th century-get a member of the present ruling family to come over and have a full-time king/queen who would reign full-time and would be your head of state and yours alone.

    By Blogger Turnip Ghost, at 3:26 AM  

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