Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Abolishing the monarchy -- what, like it's hard?

My friend James Bowden runs an impressive blog called Parliamentum about parliamentary and constitutional matters.  Recently he took note of a debate in Ottawa between historian Michael Bliss and journalist John Fraser on the topic "The monarchy is a dangerous anachronism," with Bliss in favour and Fraser opposed.  It must have been a crowd with strongly-held views -- James reports that they were polled before and after, and pretty much no one changed their minds as a result of the debate. James also says this: 
Contrary to what Bliss suggested throughout his presentation, the abolition of the Crown of Canada means throwing out and rewriting the entire Constitution of Canada, not merely amending it, because the Crown currently forms the basis of sovereignty and authority through the Crown-in-Council and the Crown-in-Parliament.
Surely this is not the case. The political project of abolition would be substantial, no doubt -- getting Parliament and all the provinces onside simultaneously is a big challenge, sure, and reaching consensus on precisely how to select and empower a Canadian head of state would a big political project, too.  But if a political consensus were reached, how difficult would it be make the amendments that would transfer what remains of the Queen's powers and responsibilities to the duly selected Canadian head of state (presumably the governor general)?

Most of the countries of the Commonwealth have already done this, and replacing the monarch with a domestic head of state did not seem to greatly tax their local constitutional law drafters. Ireland, once a dominion like Canada, did it long ago too, and now has an elected president with pretty much the same very circumscribed powers of a Canadian governor general.

So where is the need to throw out and rewrite the whole Canadian Constitution?  No doubt the lawyers would be kept busy for a while, but it's a technical exercise more than a substantial constitutional revision, surely.  I know monarchy thrives on a certain amount of mystique and mystery, but I suspect Michael Bliss was right to suggest the constitutional implications of abolishing the monarchy are not that large.  Indeed, as I have heard him say elsewhere, the constitutional problems of our current situation, where the prime minister is accountable to a governor general whom he himself can hire and fire, are probably large enough in themselves to demand the attention of concerned Canadians.

James is so prolific that I suspect Parliamentum may have a reply up in hours.  Go to it, James.

Update, April 3:  James's response is up at his blog. To my eye, he mostly restates his assertion -- that the mysterious essence of monarchy so pervades the constitution that we would have to rewrite the whole thing when we establish a Canadian head of state -- without showing which chapters and sections would create such intractable problems. But you should read his essay and see for yourself

Just a couple of responses on specific point. We can largely ignore the provincial constitutions in this discussion, because they would not be much affected. The constitution leaves the provinces free to amend their own constitutions, except for changes concerning the lieutenant-governor. Under a Canadian head of state, it seems to me, the lieutenant-governor could continue, just as now, to be appointed by the head of state upon the advice of cabinet, while continuing to act on the advice of the provincial executive. On this point, too, Canadianizing the head of state seems like the kind of modest, incremental change James advocates.

The relationship with aboriginal Canadians would be similarly unchanged. The treaty relationship between First Nations and Canada is of vital importance in many ways. But the treaties are not with the Queen personally, they are with the Queen of Canada, which is to say, this being a constitutional monarchy, the relationship is already with Canada and would not change. There have been and probably are First Nations leaders who would like to be dealing with a remote Imperial Crown rather than with the settler government of Canada, but the imperial responsibility for aboriginal matters was long since transferred to the Canadian state, and the Queen is not going to (indeed, could not) overturn that reality under any circumstances. That issue has been gone a very long time.
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