Tuesday, May 02, 2023

The monarchy is undermining the constitution

The Globe and Mail reports on the MPs and Senators, from in and outside Quebec, from the Bloc, the Liberals, and the NDP, who regret and resent having to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch in order to serve the Canadian people in the Canadian Parliament.

Quebec Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne also questioned the need for the oath. “The time has come to at least have a choice … to swear to the monarch or to Canada,” she said.

“I would prefer to swear to the people of Canada.”

This sentiment is becoming close to universal. In practice, in daily life, we have already abolished the monarchy in Canada. It means little to anyone now. For many years, Canada has been thoroughly disconnected from monarchist attitudes and British traditions. The monarchy no longer holds significant meaning for Canadians -- not positive meaning, at least. 

 And the best defence of the monarchy anyone offers nowadays? It seems to be, oh, well, it's not that big a deal, it's not worth doing anything about it.  From the same Globe article:

Michael Wernick, a former head of the federal public service and a former a senior official in constitutional affairs, said revisiting the oath with 220 parliamentary sitting days left until the next election would be “a huge waste of energy.”

“There’s more important things to focus on,” he said.

The Prime Minister, responding to the latest in a decades-long series of polls confirming the vanishing significance of the monarchy in Canada, said much the same a few days ago ("Trudeau says Canada's ties to monarchy 'not his focus.'") As if governments focus on one thing at a time.

The expectation seems to be that large numbers of the people we elect to represent us will continue to effectively perjure themselves, or at least engage in the kind of mental finger-crossing that allows them to declare on oath that their highest loyalty is to a foreign monarch who reigns by divine right, in order to fulfil their duties to us.

The oath question shows how important the monarchy problem has become. As the political scientist Emmett Macfarlane points out, Quebec's legislation -- exempting members of the Quebec National Assembly from having to swear the oath to the king -- is flatly unconstitutional. But since it is nearly universally popular and harms almost no one,  it is likely to endure indefinitely, constitutional or not.

Canada has a serious problem when some policy choice is so popular that simply ignoring the constitution becomes acceptable, even preferable. Indeed, it's likely to become infectious in other provinces, maybe also in Ottawa. When the monarchy is unpopular enough to bring our monarchical constitution itself into disrepute, we need seriously to consider changing the constitution, instead of blithely saying, "Oh, it's too much trouble, so it's impossible."

And it should not be only the constitutional standing of that oath that is examined. What we need is a prime minister ready to go to the provinces and say, " Are you willing to discuss a constitutional amendment on the monarchy? No side deals, no fish for rights, no referendum, a one-time, one-issue consideration of collective action on our head of state problem." Who knows, with Quebec already outside the constitution on the oath question, and seemingly determined to set itself aside from monarchy, even it might consider a one-time relaxation of its traditional veto on constitutional change.  

That would put our governments into the monarchy discussion. And yes, it would generate some "energy."  Good energy. The monarchy may be centuries old and the constitutional amending formula only forty. But if the obsolete monarchy is rendering the constitution obsolete, it's time for a review. If our governments can't address a problem that has already been settled everywhere else in Canadian life, they fail us too. It's worth some effort.

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