Saturday, August 06, 2005

Long Live The Republic of Canada

The recent appointment of Michaelle Jean as Canada's next governor general and the Liberal government's insouciant defiance of constitutional convention by clinging to power after losing the confidence of the House of Commons makes reconsideration of our current constitutional arrangements an especially timely issue.

Our system of constitutional monarchy once served us well when Canada was a self-governing dominion with a strong political and cultural connection to Great Britain.

Membership in the British Empire strengthened our new-born nation at a time when it otherwise might have fallen into the clutches of the United States. It provided economic and military protection that allowed Canada to evolve from a colony to a country.

With the passing of the British Empire, the constitutional connection to the British Crown has become increasingly anachronistic.

But for two particular reasons, I believe that the Canadian constitutional monarchy is no longer an effective system for the headship of state, and should be replaced with a republican system.

The first reason: the office of governor general is no longer an effective defender of the Canadian constitutional order. The constitutional convention that the Crown can only act on the advice of its ministers has gradually emasculated the office. I

In theory, the governor general can exercise the powers of dismissal, dissolution of Parliament, reservation and refusal of royal assent to prevent the government of the day from violating the constitution or from enacting injurious legislation.

In practice, no governor general can do so without touching off a constitutional crisis and being condemned roundly for thwarting the will of the democratically elected government.

Thus has the office of the prime minister been able to concentrate ever more power in itself, unchecked and unbalanced.

The second reason flows from the first: the increasing indifference or hostility towards the Crown as an institution.

One may blame forty years of social engineering aided and abetted by the federal government, but it does no good to cry over spilt milk. For good or ill, the Canadian public regards the Crown as a "foreign" Crown, and the governor general as its representative could not exercise its official powers without being perceived as acting on its behalf.

The constitutional monarchy survives in Canada largely by inertia; the 1982 Constitution Act requires the consent of all provinces to change the relationship of Canada to the Crown. Given the general distaste in Canada for constitutional debate, especially where such debate is equated with appeasing Quebec, it is little wonder that no great movement has arisen to change the system.

Nonetheless, the system is broken and needs to be replaced.

I recommend that the governor general be replaced with a president, elected by the people for a single fixed term by a non-partisan ballot, with the office's powers clearly defined in the constitution.

A truly Canadian head of state chosen by the people would enjoy a democratic legitimacy, as the only public official directly elected by all the people of Canada, to exercise his powers for the protection of the constitution and peace, order and good government of Canada.

For the most part, the president would continue to act much as the current governor general does, and act on the advice of the prime minister. But he would have the power and the legitimacy to take on the prime minister to protect the constitution.

While I lament the loss of certain symbols of our connection to the British Crown, nostalgia must give way to the pragmatic defence of democratic government.

The defence of our liberties is the truly conservative course, and if the Crown stands in the way, away with the Crown.

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