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Subzwari: The Republic of Canada Nightmare

July 12, 2011

As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge finish their highly successful first royal tour of Canada, questions are abound, as always, about the future of the monarchy in Canada. It is a debate that emerged when the Queen visited in the summer of 2010 and when the Prince of Wales visited in November of 2009. It is a debate that has always come forward when a member of the Royal Family is in Canada. Most debates have tended to focus on ideology; but here, in an attempt to change the tone of debate, I shall look at the realistic problems that plague the republican proposition which makes it so unappealing as a viable alternative to the monarchy to most Canadians.

The first is the delicate yet fundamental problem of what kind of republic should be adopted if Canada were to become one. There are presidential republics with the president as both head of state and government, semi-presidential republics with a president and prime minister dividing power, and parliamentary republics with a ceremonial president and a politically active prime minister. Each system could foreseeable be implemented in Canada and could potentially be disastrous.

A presidential republic would vest the power of both state and government in one person. Realistically, it would be the current office of the Prime Minister that would be transformed into the office of the President of Canada, adding the powers currently held by the Governor General. The result would be a political office of great power. The office of the Prime Minister has evolved into one of great power within Canada, even more powerful domestically than the office of the President of the United States. Would it be wise to give an already powerful office even more power?

Critics would say that the Prime Minister already handles the responsibilities of the Governor General so the change would not be very consequential. That is true to a certain extent, but the fact remains that the Governor General has the right to reject a Prime Minister’s advice if it seems unreasonable. More importantly, the Governor General has the power to recall a Prime Minister. While this has never been used in Canada, it was used to great effect in Australia where the Australian Governor General dismissed a superbly incompetent and deeply unpopular Prime Minister, forcing a general election. It makes complete constitutional sense to have power held by one person and exercised by another. A presidential system corrupts that basic wisdom.

This arrangement is the basis of a parliamentary system. Many Canadian republicans wish to institute a parliamentary republic where the separation of the head of state and government would remain but the position of the Queen would be replaced with an office of a President, who although would be elected, would have nominal powers equal to that of the current Governor General.

This too has its faults.  The Governor Generals today exercise no democratic legitimacy because they are not elected. But what if they were to become elected? Could it not be presumed that an elected Head of State, no matter how nominal their powers in theory, would be more willing and able to exercise their reserve powers, drawing their legitimacy from their popular election? And even graver would be the corruption of the idea of the Head of State as it stands in a monarchy. A monarch stands above the mundane affairs of politics, as a beacon of their country to represent each and every person in the realm without political discrimination, to visit another country as an ambassador of its entire people, showing a united front, free of all political fractures.

No matter how hard one tries, politics cannot be kept away from elections. An elected Canadian head of state would automatically mean a political head of state, accepted by those who voted for them and rejected by those who didn’t. Any thing this head of state would say or do would be considered to be the echo of their party and its supporters. The country would be divided in its highest office. It would no longer be the Governor General of all Canada, but the Conservative President of Canada, or the Liberal President of Canada.

The only alternative would be to have an appointed Governor General who is head of state alone and not just a representative of the monarch. But what does that achieve? One of the chief problems republicans have with the monarchy is that it is not democratic. An appointed head of state would rather dampen any meaningful use of abolishing the monarchy. Or is the only reason for abolition is to have a Canadian head of state, born and bred. Again that argument falls flat on its face. It’s not like the Queen isn’t well acquainted with this country. Having made more than 60 visits to the country over 60 years and having rubbed shoulders with every Prime Minister since Louis St.Laurent, it is quite disingenuous to say that she is a foreigner.

But even if republicans do decide what republic to institute within Canada, they would face the painfully difficult task of abolishing the monarchy. The Constitution Act of 1982 has made it virtually impossible for a republic to be declared. Under Section 41 of this Act, the House of Commons, the Senate, and every single province in Canada must accept any change to the office of the Governor General or the position of the Queen. Also, after the debacle of the Charlottetown Accord of 1990, a national referendum on the issue will have to be called as well. It would require quite a shift in popular opinion and extraordinary political skill to abolish the monarchy.

But the final question that must be asked is why? Why should a system of government that has served Canada for almost 150 years be abolished? Is modernization or aesthetics a good enough excuse to replace the entire foundation of this confederation? What good will come of it? Clearly, a presidential system would be no good, nor would an elected head of state in a parliamentary system, and an appointed President is just too much trouble for too little reward.

Perhaps, the sentiment is best summarized in the revolutionary and utterly anti-monarchical American Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, the champion of republican liberty wrote: “all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms of government to which they are accustomed”. Will we be better off by cutting the age-old connection to the monarchy; the source of the democratic traditions that have flourished in this land, the source of its traditions of rights and freedoms, the first protector of minorities like the First Nations. The answer, quite clearly, is no.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Moldovan permalink
    July 12, 2011 3:00 am

    Look, we don’t actually have to be intrinsic in the way we look at reforming our political system, and you fall into a trap here. There are Hundreds of examples out there. Look at Germany, South Africa, France, Italy, Brazil, India, Japan, etc. So many countries have such beautiful systems that we can study and learn of how to improve ours. In political analysis actually having cases to study social experiments is the hardest thing to come by. In this case we don’t need to do the arbitrary “pick three” bullshit you’re pulling but we can actually look at what as worker where, re-adapt it with other systems and fuse it into ours.

    Now that that’s out of the way, I just have a few things i want to comment on your article.

    You’re first argument doesn’t jive with me. You do realize that the Governor General has almost always done what the Prime Minister has asked him to do?

    And you do realize that when the Prime Minister, or the party in power, has been defeated on the floor of the House of Commons in minority situations or if an idea from a member has made it independently past the third reading the Governor General has tended to not sign the legislation into law on the request of the PM.

    In our current system you have a PM that serves as a de jure Head of Government with a monkey as his de jure Head of State.

    And you do realize that in that example, Australia, where the little bit of “complete constitutional sense” of having a GG to dismiss a PM you actually have a huge republican movement largely because of a system that pays homage to an antiquity of the past is getting in the way of the business of the people.

    I actually don’t even understand you’re argument for an elected President. Any President, PM, MP, MPP, MLA or any person of public position are in place to serve not the people who voted them in but rather the people their constituencies represent.

    Your point bears no meaning when you argue that an independent monarchist GG would be politically neutral on the world stage as an “ambassador” of Canada. GGs have thier own political views that I’m sure they talk about when they do things on the world stage, it wouldn’t be different from a President except they’d have a mandate to do more then talk polo over tea.

    As much as I disagree with Harper what he says and does on the world stage DOES “represent” Canada. When an MP, MMP, or MLA goes overseas they are still representing their home provinces, when a Speaker is chosen they are to be neutral, so I don’t quite understand what you are getting at when you say we can’t trust the politicization of this role when politicians who actively represent the interests of their constituents all the time, Often on a neutral basis.

    Buddy, you may see a political figure as “accepted by those who voted for them and rejected by those who didn’t,” but it’s often not black and white, unless you forgot politics is supposed to be co-operative that’s why we have multiple seats in the legislature and not a tyrannical monarch ruling us.

    You following sentence is so subjective its point is mute. To me the President of the United States of America is Barack Obama. To you he is the Democrat President of the United States.

    To be perfectly honest with you I don’t know who the current GG is. Why? Because he does fuck all and gets paid for it. I don’t see him representing us in the UN. I don’t see him representing us anywhere else. When there is a crucial global decision going on some place I don’t see him, I see Harper. A man that I may have some major disagreements with but his is the voice Canada.

    You completely lose sight of the nature of democracy. It is not one of parties and bickering. It has become that as of late. Governance in this country wasn’t as partisan as it once was and i hope that we can undo that and make politics as all inclusive as it used to be.

    You make it seem that Monarchs don’t have their own affiliations. Edward VIII who thank God abdicated went on to be a HUGE Hitler and Nazi supporter during WW2. he’s actually quoted as saying, “When I return to Britain, it will not be as their King but as their Leader.”

    By the way, you immensely Romanticize the Monarchy as if it were some God given thing. You make it seem that an institution with its roots in barbaric,despotic, and absolutist rule is something that Canadian should look forward to.

    You do know that the English fought a civil war to rid themselves of the Monarchy?

    You also understand that it is in the name of past and current monarchs where terrible systems such as slavery, colonization, genocide and ethnic cleansing took place. And hey this supposedly neutral voice of the Canadian peoples signed these documents by Parliament into officialized laws?

    “it is quite disingenuous to say that she is a foreigner,” she is a foreigner to me because she has lived a life in the upper classes, in another country, and she genuinely doesn’t know what it is like to be a regular person. When her son was cheating on Dianna, the Queen was heard to have said something to the effect of, “Doesn’t she know that that is perfectly natural for a Monarch to cheat on his wife?”

    “Will we be better off by cutting the age-old connection to the monarchy; the source of the democratic traditions that have flourished in this land, the source of its traditions of rights and freedoms, the first protector of minorities like the First Nations”

    Every aspect of this article ticks me off especially this sentence. You realize that the system we have now is in place because people over the past few hundred years have fought and died to liberate themselves from the custom of the divine rule of law. You realize that the Monarchs of old ruled tyrannically and it was with love of true liberty and not just pathetic concessions that they pushed monarchs into signing documents like the Magna Carta and creating institutions like the House of Commons. This sentence that you probably have only given about 5 seconds of thought into cuts me deep because of the historical ignorance it shows, just in the first part.

  2. Blair O. permalink
    July 12, 2011 3:56 am

    “Any thing this head of state would say or do would be considered to be the echo of their party and its supporters. The country would be divided in its highest office. It would no longer be the Governor General of all Canada, but the Conservative President of Canada, or the Liberal President of Canada.”

    I fail to see how that’s any different from our current system, assuming a hypothetical “Canadian President” would hold the same powers as the GG. When Harper can rename the “Government of Canada” the “Harper Government,” then we’re already facing that exact problem. The fact that no GG excercises any of their powers whatsover, unless they have a majority support from the HoC, is good reason to kick the position itself.

  3. Adnan permalink
    July 12, 2011 11:07 pm

    Just to add, the analogy that I like to use about the monarchy is that of the fire extinguisher. It is always there to ensure that when there is a fire, you have the means to put it out. Just because you haven’t used it for a very long time doesn’t mean that it is no good anymore. The monarchy is a political fire extinguisher. Look at the Spanish. The only reason they still have a democracy was because their king Juan Carlos was able to overturn a coup by the military to stop the democratic reforms that the King had initiated. And those countries who have abolished their monarchy have always gone through a period of political turmoil. Look at the United Kingdom, Portugal, Greece, Germany, Italy, Russia, and most recently Nepal and the pain they went through in abolishing their monarchies (thankfully the British saw sense and replaced it as soon as possible and restored stability).

    • Alex Moldovan permalink
      July 12, 2011 11:27 pm

      Man you get more illogical the deeper you go. So you are essentially saying that a Monarch is needed to maintain political stability. You’ve argued in your article that a Monarch who doesn’t put his hands into politics would be ideal. Now you are using an example of a King who meddled in Spanish politics, got called for it, and was luck (well, horribly rather) enough to keep his post. You do realize that Juan Carlos was put in place because of a bloody dictator who slaughtered thousands in the name of the monarchy. You realize that in Italy they kicked out their King who was complacent with Mussolini, actually it was only a few weeks ago that marked the 60th anniversary of the Republic of Italy and I could tell you that I know of no Italian who misses the days of the Monarchy. In Russia, the Czar’s subjects were considered property, as in Nicholas II OWNED his citizens. How can you defend that, or rather how can you be so ignorant as to use that as an example. Speaking of ignorance you do realize that there’s been a Maoist insurgency in Nepal for the past few decades, Maybe, just maybe that is why Nepal is politically unstable not because their petty little King was kicked out.

  4. July 13, 2011 3:50 pm

    We’re protecting our First Nations? Since when?

  5. September 26, 2011 6:41 pm

    I can’t understand the necessity of a monarch for Canada, when they have granted us our own constitution… The Queen, nor Govenor General should have no say in our affairs as a nation. Those are institutions of the past…and should be discarded…
    What would be more detestable would be to go toward a Presidential system similar to the USA. Can’t we remain Parlimentary without a monarch or fake ‘leader’?

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