Wednesday, March 10, 2021

History of a Canadian head of state

The prime minister says now is not the time to talk about the monarchy.  It seems like a narrow, cautious statement, driven more by pollsters and strategists than someone with a sense that leadership can often be sound strategy.

The political scientist Emmett Macfarlane recently posted one of those endless multi-tweet tweets (Remember when tweets were actually brief? Why don't tweeters just blog when they are going to go on for paragraphs and paragraphs?) on the same theme as the prime minister: it's useless, it's complicated, we can't have nice things. Because polls or something. Because it might be hard. 

Professor Macfarlane'sintention, he says, is to remind us that changing the head-of-state situation in Canada requires a high constitutional threshold. We should not expect it to happen just like that, just because we want it. He's right. The constitutional threshold is high.  But that's not sufficient cause for leaving the whole matter alone for another century.

The main thing about support for the monarchy in Canada is that it is as thin and fragile as glass. No one in Canada seriously believes the royal family has anything to do with Canada any more No one would miss it if it were gone. Canadian identity is actually strong, and needs to be given expression in our governing institutions. Britishness is no longer a part of it.

So the appropriate step for our representatives to take would be to acknowledge that we are stuck for the moment with a feckless, ineffectual, uninspiring anachronism, that we should begin by acknowledging that, and that we should proceed by starting a process of change.

Let's acknowledge that establishing a Canadian head of state would require the support of the federal Parliament and all ten provinces. It' s a threshold never yet achieved in Canadian constitutional palaver. But that's hardly reason not to. Many of the past constitutional failures, frankly, deserved to fail. This one does not. Calmly to start the long, slow, process of achieving it would be popular, not dangerous.  

If it starts out as aspirational rather than a short-term promise, it can grow into a movement.  And once it's clear that the difficulties should be acknowledged and can be addressed, the motivitation for provincial leaders to block it begins to fade away.  All Professor Macfarlane's impossibilities become simply a longish series of steps to be taken.

Update, same dayJerry Bannister comments:

I couldn't agree more. If now isn't the time to have a serious conversation about this, when is? Out of all the challenges facing Canada today, changing our relationship with the British monarchy and establishing a new head of state is more feasible than other constitutional goals. Between our own ongoing controversy over the Governor General's office, and now the latest saga of the British drama, now is the time to deal with this. So, if you're starting a movement, count me in!

Well, not a movement, but maybe a little research workshop to look into the issues. Who's in?

Update, March 11:  Aaron Wherry at CBC is arguing a Canadian head of state is "not worth the time and energy." He also waves as a deterrent the idea that, sans Queen, an elected governor general might become a rival to the prime minister, or some kind of dictator. Well, that's a good reason to consider not having a directly elected head of state. It's hardly a reason not to have a head of state, or to stick with a borrowed foreign one.

And here's his killer argument: "At the very least, provisions for a new head of state would have to be written carefully and with a full understanding of where reform might lead."

What does he think, the rest of the constitution was scribbled out on a napkin? Of course constitutional provisions have to be carefully written. Declaring that it should not be done because it would have to be done right -- what kind of veto is that? 

It is a serious step, and it should be done seriously. But that's no reason to do nothing ever. These pearl-clutchings about how difficult it would be are hard to credit. Barbados is about to do it, and its legal drafters don't seem too daunted by the prospect, nor their politicians doomed to devote all their time or energy on it.

Update, March 12: Mark Reynolds pushes back:
I don't think there's any "of course" about the seriousness with which Canadian politicians take the constitution at all: I can think of at least three Governor Generals in my lifetime that appeared to have been appointed fairly flippantly. Trudeau's changes to the Senate had entirely foreseeable consequences, in terms of the balance of power between it and the Commons, that nobody in the PMO seemed to have bothered trying to think about. Neither the GG or the Senate are the Constitution itself, but there is not a lot of demonstrated thoughtfulness for its machinery on display in these examples. When we get to the actual constitution, we get Mulroney's "roll of the dice" approach to Meech or the sort of politicking that led to the notwithstanding clause.

All of which is to say, I don't think there's a lot of evidence that Canada's leaders would "of course" be careful with drafting their constitutional provisions.



Follow @CmedMoore