Canada’s Royal Succession Bill

In 2011, at a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government held in Perth, Australia, the 16 countries which have Queen Elizabeth as their head of state agreed to modernize the rules of royal succession. The proposed changes would put an end to three current practices:

  • male children inheriting the throne ahead of their older, female siblings.
  • a ban on a monarch or direct heir to the throne marrying a Roman Catholic.
  • the requirement for all descendants of George II to obtain the monarch’s permission to marry or else have their marriage declared void.

The Canadian government recently introduced Bill C-53, An Act to assent to alterations in the law touching the Succession to the Throne. A motion was moved, and agreed to unanimously, to give the bill second and third reading the same day, and it is now before the Senate.

For many, however, the Canadian bill is problematic and potentially even unconstitutional. Essentially, it merely assents to the Bill currently before the UK Parliament. You can track the progress of the UK bill as well as read it in its current form here. By merely assenting to the UK bill, Canada is merely agreeing with whatever changes are ultimately adopted by the UK Parliament.

Many constitutional experts are arguing that this approach is not sufficient, and that Canada would actually be required to amend its Constitution in order to adopt these changes. The constitutional amendment would also require the support of all of the provinces.

I am by no means a constitutional expert, and so I will  link to articles written by people far better qualified to explain this complex issue.

1. For an excellent overall background piece, please read Janyce McGregor’s Canada’s royal baby bill risks constitutional complications. McGregor explains how this issue came about, and provides an overview of the main constitutional arguments in a very accessible way.

2. For a more detailed discussion of the constitutional questions raised by Bill C-53, please read Prof. Philippe Lagassé’s The Queen of Canada is dead; long live the British Queen:

If the United Kingdom cannot legislate the rules of succession for the Canadian Crown, it follows that Canada must have the power to determine the rules of succession for its Sovereign and head of state. At present, the Canadian rules of succession are those that were inherited from the United Kingdom. And an argument might be made that they must mirror those of Great Britain absent a constitutional amendment, owing to the preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867. But mirroring the British rules does not mean Canada can simply assent to British bills to bring its succession into line with the United Kingdom’s. If Canada is a sovereign state and has an independent Crown, the Canadian legislatures—Parliament and the provincial legislatures—must pass substantive legislation to ensure that Canada’s rules of succession reflect those of Great Britain, not merely assent to a British law. Here again, the Governor General’s granting of Crown consent to the Canadian bill indicates the government is at least partially aware the British and Canadian Crowns cannot be affected by the same British law.

3. Australian constitutional expert Anne Twomey is also baffled by the Canadian government’s approach, as she explains in The royal succession and the de-patriation of the Canadian Constitution:

Hence, all that the Canadian Bill appears to do is to agree to a change in the law of succession in relation to the British Crown that does not in any way affect, or purport to affect, the succession to the Crown of Canada. The consequence would be that if the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was a girl and a later child was a boy, the girl would become Queen of the United Kingdom and the boy would become King of Canada (assuming that neither jurisdiction had become a republic by that time).

(…)

Likewise, s 2 of the Canada Act 1982 provides:

No Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after the Constitution Act, 1982 comes into force shall extend to Canada as part of its law.

It would therefore seem to be abundantly clear that a Canadian law that simply ‘assents’ to a British law that changes succession to the British throne, does not and cannot affect succession to the throne of Canada.

Similarly, the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust argues:

Queen Elizabeth II was proclaimed in Canada as the Sovereign and “Supreme Liege Lady in and over Canada to whom we acknowledge all faith and constant obedience” before she was proclaimed Sovereign in the United Kingdom. Of course Elizabeth II had become the Queen of both countries the instant that her father had died, by virtue of the laws of Succession. Her sovereignty was announced to her peoples, not granted, by the respective Accession Proclamations, but Canadians were able to recognize who their Sovereign was without reference to any proclamation of recognition in the United Kingdom because the laws of Succession in the two countries produced the same Sovereign. If there were no laws of Succession in Canada the Canadian Accession Proclamation in 1952 could not have been issued first. For the record, it was the already proclaimed Queen of Canada who was then proclaimed as Queen of the United Kingdom.

Of course, not everyone agrees with these arguments. For example, Prof. Mark Walters of Queen’s University dismisses these concerns:

The question has produced controversy — but it shouldn’t.  The short answer is simple: under the law of the Constitution of Canada, the king or queen of Canada is whoever happens to be the king or queen of the United Kingdom. Although the government of Canada introduced a bill into the Canadian Parliament this month that, when enacted, will express “assent” to the changes to the rules of royal succession to be made by the British Parliament, this assent will be given as a matter of constitutional practice or convention only; it is not required by, and it will have no effect within, Canadian constitutional law. Again, the rule of Canadian constitutional law is simply that the Crown in Canada is worn by whoever wears the Crown in the United Kingdom. While British rules on who wears the Crown in Britain are complex and open to change from time to time, the Canadian rule on who wears the Crown in Canada is simple and, for the time being, fixed.

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On Constitutional Monarchy

Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries, are constitutional monarchies. Constitutional monarchy is a form of monarchical government established under a constitutional system that acknowledges an elected or hereditary monarch as head of state. Modern constitutional monarchies usually implement the concept of trias politica or “separation of powers”, where the monarch either is the head of the executive branch or simply has a ceremonial role. Where a monarch holds absolute power, it is known as an absolute monarchy. The process of government and law within an absolute monarchy can be very different from that in a constitutional monarchy.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a Commonwealth Realm that formally recognizes Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada. Though the United Kingdom and Canada share the same Monarch, the Queen of the United Kingdom is a legally separate role from the Queen of Canada.

Today, constitutional monarchy is almost always combined with representative democracy, and represents theories of sovereignty which places sovereignty in the hands of the people, and those that see a role for traditions in the theory of government. Though the king or queen may be regarded as the head of state, the Prime Minister, whose power derives directly or indirectly from elections, is head of government.

Although current constitutional monarchies are mostly representative democracies, this has not always historically been the case. There have been monarchies which have coexisted with constitutions which were fascist (or quasi-fascist), as was the case in Italy, Japan and Spain, or with military dictatorships, as was the case in Thailand.

Some constitutional monarchies are hereditary but others, such as that of Malaysia are elective monarchies.

The Sixteen Realms of the Commonwealth of Nations

The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen Realms of the Commonwealth of Nations, all independent parliamentary democracies under Elizabeth II. Unlike the United Kingdom, almost all of the other countries in this family have written constitutions with complex processes for constitutional change. Through political crises, peaceful constitutional drafting and international debate, the Westminster conventions concerning the constitutional monarch have gained much clearer definition in the other fifteen Realms than in the United Kingdom. In many of these constitutions the monarch or her representative have been regarded as an integral part of the Executive and Legislative processes, and their positions are explicitly protected, at least in part, by the written constitution.

Unlike some of their continental European counterparts, the Westminster monarch and her representatives retain significant “reserve” or “prerogative” powers, to be wielded only in times of extreme emergency (e.g. Australia 1975, Granada 1983, Solomon Islands 1994), usually to uphold parliamentary government. On these occasions a lack of understanding by the public of the relevant constitutional conventions can cause controversy: for example, the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government in Australia.

Canada as a Constitutional Monarchy

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a Commonwealth Realm that formally recognizes Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada. Though the United Kingdom and Canada share the same Monarch, the Queen of the United Kingdom is a legally separate role from the Queen of Canada.

The role of the sovereign, which on paper seems to be all-encompassing, is contrasted with the reality that the Queen is bound by convention to very rarely exercise her powers, and is thus largely a ceremonial figurehead. Instead the great majority of the Monarch’s power, prerogatives, and duties are performed on a day-to-day basis by the Governor General at the federal level, or by the Lieutenant-Governors at the provincial level. While her formal political role has diminished, and the Governor General has taken on more of the Head-of-State functions, the Monarch is still the constitutional head of Canada. In that capacity, all government business, all laws, all elections, etc., are done or proclaimed in the Sovereign’s name.

The current Queen, Queen Elizabeth II, has reigned as Canada’s sovereign since her ascension on February 6, 1952, and she has been a far more visible Monarch than any in the past, visiting Canada 21 times as Queen (and once as a Princess), more than any other Commonwealth Realm except the UK itself.

In Canada, the Queen’s official title in English is: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. In French, the Queen’s title is: Élizabeth Deux, par la grâce de Dieu Reine du Royaume-Uni, du Canada et de ses autres royaumes et territoires, Chef du Commonwealth, Défenseur de la Foi. In common practice, Queen Elizabeth II is referred to simply as “The Queen” or “The Queen of Canada” when in Canada, or when abroad and acting on the advice of her Canadian ministers.

Some Notable Features of the Canadian Constitutional Monarchy

Although Queen Elizabeth II is also monarch of the United Kingdom and several other Commonwealth countries, each nation, including Canada, is sovereign and independent of the others. The identity of the sovereign is determined by the conditions set out in the Act of Settlement. As a result of the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the dominions acquired the right to be considered equal to Britain rather than subordinate; an agreement that had the result of, in theory, a shared Crown that operates independently in each realm rather than a unitary British Crown under which all the dominions were subordinate. The monarchy thus ceased to be an exclusively British institution, although it has often been called British since this time (in both legal and common language) for historical reasons and for convenience. The Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927 was the first indication of this shift in law, further elaborated in the Statute of Westminster, 1931. Under the Statute of Westminster, 1931, Canada has a common monarchy with Britain and the other Commonwealth Realms and cannot change the rules of succession without the unanimous consent of the other realms, unless Canada explicitly leaves the shared monarchy relationship by means of a constitutional amendment.

Succession to the throne has been by male-preference primogeniture and governed by the provisions of the Act of Settlement and the English Bill of Rights. These documents are now part of Canadian constitutional law. In 2011, the Commonwealth Realms agreed to amend the rules governing the line of succession to the Throne. The changes will enshrine gender equality and freedom to marry an individual of another faith in the laws governing the Royal line of succession.These changes are expected to be adopted in 2013.

Although the Queen’s Canadian title includes “Defender of the Faith/Défenseur de la Foi,” neither the Queen, the Governor General, nor any Lieutenant-Governor has any religious role in Canada. There have been no established churches in Canada since before confederation in 1867. This is one of the key differences from the Queen’s role in the United Kingdom where she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

On all matters of state to do with Canada, the monarch is advised solely by the Canadian federal and provincial first ministers. Effective with the Constitution Act, 1982 no British government can advise the monarch on any matters pertinent to Canada.

All powers of state are constitutionally reposed in the Queen, who is represented at the federal level by the Governor General of Canada and at the provincial level by Lieutenant-Governor. The Governor General is appointed by the Queen upon the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada. The ten lieutenant-governors are appointed by the Governor General, in the name of the Queen, upon the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada though the Queen is informed of the Prime Minister’s decision before the Governor General gives assent. The Commissioners of Canada’s territories of Nunavut, Yukon, and Northwest Territories are appointed by Governor in Council at the recommendation of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. But as the territories are not sovereign entities, the commissioners are not representatives of the sovereign. They receive instruction from the said federal Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Royal Assent and proclamation are required for all acts of Parliament and of the provincial legislatures. Territorial legislatures are subject to the oversight of the Government of Canada. Provinces and their legislatures, as sovereign entities, are not.

The legal personality of the monarch in Canada is referred to as “Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada,” and likewise for the provinces and territories (i.e., “in Right of Ontario,” etc.). For example, if a lawsuit is filed against the federal government, the respondent is formally described as Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Of course, the Queen herself takes no more role in such an affair than in any other business of government. Indeed, in cases in which, for example, a province sues the federal government, it would formally be Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Prince Edward Island v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.

As in the UK, the Queen’s role is almost entirely symbolic and cultural, and the powers that are constitutionally hers are exercised wholly upon the advice of the elected government. In exceptional circumstances, however, the Queen or Governor General may act against such advice based upon her reserve powers as when Governor General Byng refused a demand by Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King for a dissolution of Parliament and call for new elections, because King’s request was blatantly unconstitutional, and it is the first order of the Crown to defend the constitution (see King-Byng Affair). For the most part, however, the monarch functions as a rubber stamp and a symbol of the legal authority under which all governments operate. It has been correctly said since the death of Queen Anne (1714), the last monarch to head the British cabinet (when almost all of Canada was still French colonial territory), that the monarch “reigns” but does not “rule”. In Canada, this has been true since the Treaty of Paris (1763) ended the reign of Canada’s last absolute monarch, King Louis XV of France.

Queen Elizabeth II, as is common for all her other non-UK realms, is generally regarded as “Queen of Canada” only when she is actually present in Canada or when she otherwise performs ceremonies relevant to Canada, such as conferring Canadian honours in the UK or participating in the Canadian World War II memorial ceremonies in France. Except for a few duties which must be performed by the Queen (e.g., signing the appointment papers of governors general and lieutenant-governors, which no governor general can do), or which require assent by the Queen as well as the Governor General (as when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney expanded the number of Senate seats to assure passage of the Goods and Services Tax), all of the Queen’s federal duties are performed by the Governor General and all of her provincial duties are performed by the pertinent Lieutenant-Governor.

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Some interesting links

1. The Big Society

The Canadian media has recently been reporting that the current Conservative Government is considering emulating the UK Coalition Government in adopting David Cameron’s Big Society. Some of what has been written here in Canada is critical of this, which is their perogative, but I found that they often failed to adequately explain the plan. See, for example, this post by Murray Dobbin, in which he dimisses the initiative as “social engineering from the right” and pointing out that the Big Society “scam” has been “widely ridiculed” but makes little effort to explain how it’s supposed to work. I am not argueing for or against this initiative, but I did think some Canadians (and perhaps some Brits) might be interested in learning more about it via David Cameron himself. Cameron appeared before the UK House of Commons Liaison Committee earlier this week and answered questions on a variety of issues, but a lot of the focus was on the Big Society. Canadians unfamiliar with the UK will not always understand exactly what he is talking about or referring to, but there is still enough information provided to perhaps provide some insight into what Cameron hopes the Big Society will be. You can either watch proceedings here, or read a transcript.

As a side note, this might be of added interest to Canadians who are likely to find the sight of a PM answering questions before a House of Commons committee for 90 minutes a rather mind-boggling affair.

2. New Zealand referendum on its electoral system

New Zealand adopted Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and in the 2008 election, the National Party promised to hold another referendum asking New Zealanders if they were satisfied with MMP or if they wished to change it. That referendum will take place on 26 November, and Australian elections expert and blogger Antony Green will be going to New Zealand for the last week of the campaign and will provide more details on the referendum and the election over the next two weeks. His first post on the referendum looks at New Zealand’s view of Preferential Voting, which is the voting system Australia uses. Those interested in electoral reform may want to bookmark Antony’s blog to keep track of his future posts. For those unfamiliar with the debate in New Zealand, you might find this piece of interest.

3. Rules of Royal Succession

At the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, the leaders of the member nations agreed to change the succession rules and give female members of the Royal Family the same rights to the throne as men, and to end the ban on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. This hasn’t prompted much debate in Canada, but if you’re interested in the constitutional aspects of these changes, you might find this meeting of the UK House of Commons Constitutional and Political Reform Committee worth a listen. The witnesses are Professor Robert Blackburn, Kings College London, and Dr Robert Morris, Constitution Unit, University College London. While most of the discussion is focused on the UK, they do raise some of the issues facing Commonwealth jurisdictions, including Canada.

4. A UK Clarity Act?

According to this article in the Independent, the UK is considering adopting its own version of Canada’s Clarity Act in order to counter the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP)’s drive towards a referendum on independence for Scotland.

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A few thoughts on the monarchy

With all the focus on the AV referendum in the UK and the general election here in Canada, I’ve not had a chance to write anything about another event that’s in the news quite a bit. Of course I am referring to the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29.

I freely admit that I am a monarchist. I recognize that there is nothing rational in being a monarchist, but as Alex Massie points out “[M]onarchy may not satisfy a keen rationalist but abandoning something that works simply because it doesn’t “make sense” doesn’t make much sense either.”

I don’t really intend to write about the wedding itself. I am more interested in a couple of other issues surrounding the monarchy these days. First up are the proposals to change royal succession rules, as recently put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The current rule, set out in the 1701 Act of Settlement, specifies that a royal couple’s eldest male child automatically becomes monarch — unless, as was the case when Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father, King George VI, there is no male heir in the family — which many see as rather discriminatory and out of touch with a society that values gender equality, among other things. What some may not know is that the UK alone cannot change these rules. Any change would have to be agreed to by all the countries which recognize the Queen as monarch, including, of course, Canada.

Because Canada adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1931, these constitutional laws as they apply to Canada now lie within the full control of the Canadian parliament. Canada agreed not to change its rules of succession without the unanimous consent of, and a parallel change of succession in, the other realms, unless explicitly leaving the shared monarchy relationship; a situation that applies symmetrically in all the other realms and has been likened to a treaty amongst these countries. Thus, Canada’s line of succession remains identical to that of the United Kingdom. However, there is no provision in Canadian law requiring that the king or queen of Canada must be the same person as the king or queen of the United Kingdom; if the UK were to breach the convention set out in the preamble to the Statute of Westminster and unilaterally change the line of succession to the British throne, the alteration would have no effect on the reigning sovereign of Canada or his or her heirs and successors. As such, the rules for succession are not fixed, but may be changed by a constitutional amendment.

Canada’s Prime Minister, when asked about the matter, dismissed it as being a non-issue for most Canadians:

“The successor to the throne [Prince Charles] is a man,” said Mr. Harper. “The next successor to the throne [Prince William] is a man. I don’t think Canadians want to open a debate on the monarchy or constitutional matters at this time. That’s our position, and I just don’t see that as a priority for Canadians right now at all.”

I don’t think many Canadians would have a problem with changing the rule to allow the female offspring of royal couples to succeed to the throne, even if they have younger male siblings. This would bring the monarchy in line with Canada’s own commitment to gender equality. Rather, I think the larger issue that might arise is the question of whether Canada should retain the monarchy full stop.

Recent polls in Canada show that many Canadians favour moving to an elected head of state once Queen Elizabeth II passes away. The Queen still remains quite popular and respected in Canada, but Canadians are decidedly less enthusiastic about Prince Charles. That same poll, however, shows that Prince William is almost as popular as the Queen. The unpopularity of Charles and the popularity of his eldest son isn’t unique to Canada, and this reality might actually lead to a bigger issue than that of male vs. female heirs ascending to the thrown, namely, a crisis of succession.

Recently, the Globe and Mail printed a lengthy article suggesting that the Palace itself acknowledges that there is a crisis of succession:

On the day William and Kate announced their engagement last year, 64 per cent of Britons told pollsters they wanted William to succeed Elizabeth, skipping a generation; fewer than 20 per cent said they wanted Charles to be the next king. Those numbers have narrowed only slightly, with 59 per cent telling The Daily Telegraph’s pollsters last week they wanted the monarchy to “skip a generation.” The wedding could well make this view even more popular.

Such a move wouldn’t be simple. It too would require the cooperation and agreement of all of the Commonwealth Realms, including Canada.

To shuffle Charles out of the deck would be a difficult operation: It is a decision that could be made only by the parliaments of the countries where he would be king. And if they were willing to change the monarchy from one of hereditary succession to one of parliamentarily chosen succession, how far would that be from an elected head of state?

The House of Windsor is gambling that parliaments will see it this way, and will endure Charles if the more stable and appealing William seems hard on his heels.

Friday’s wedding is a crucial volley in this campaign, but it does not obscure the fact that Charles could alienate large parts of the realm. Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has already said she would support having her country become a republic after the Queen’s death.

An embarrassing or unlikeable monarch could quickly disillusion Canadians as well, and if public opinion could be transformed in monarchy-loving Canada, then anything, anywhere in the Commonwealth, might be possible (although such structural change would be dauntingly complex).

How much will Canadians endure Charles now that the more appealing promise of William has been so tantalizingly dangled? We may start to learn the answer this summer, when it will be William’s turn to visit Canada, this time with his photogenic bride.

If he sets foot on the shores of Newfoundland and attracts an audience not in the dozens but in the thousands, will that be read as a vote against his father? Or it could be a vote, as his grandmother may well hope, for a historic bait and switch: an era during which a prince is in our hearts and a king, otherwise ignored, is on our money.

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Lessons Learned – Part 2

Continuing my discussion of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s recent report, Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election, in this section, I will look at their findings regarding when a Prime Minister should resign and the appointment of the new Prime Minister.

Parliamentary custom and convention dictate that, in the event of a hung Parliament, the incumbent Prime Minister has the right to remain in office and attempt to form a government that will command the confidence of the House of Commons.

The PM has another important constitutional duty to fulfill, and that is to “ensure that the Monarch is not without an advisor, and therefore to remain in office until the identity of his successor is clear.”(p. 10). Another distinction the report makes clear is that the above does not mean that the PM has to remain in office until it is known what sort of government will be in place (minority, coalition, etc.), or until the new government is ready to take office. His or her obligation is to remain in office only until his or her successor is known.

This is an important distinction because former Labour PM Gordon Brown faced intense media and political pressure following the May 2010 election. On the one hand, we learned that Cabinet Office and Palace officials were putting pressure on him to stay on longer than he perhaps wanted to, or felt he needed to, and at the same time, many in the media were accusing him of being a “squatter” in 10 Downing Street, arguing that he had lost the election and therefore should clear out ASAP.

In a BBC documentary on the heady days following the May election, Five Days that Changed Britain (see summary post here), Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg states that on the fifth day following the vote, he called Brown asking him to stay on until the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition deal was finalized:

I did ask him to just kind of hold on, that there was some sort of constitutional propriety, if you like, given that he was the acting prime minister, to wait to see whether a stable government could be formed before he went to the Palace. I didn’t think it was right, and I still don’t think it was right, for one person in that triangle to unilaterally declare “I’m fed up with this” and pull the plug on the entire process.

The Committee looked into this matter in some detail and concluded that Brown resigned “at a constitutionally appropriate time. He did not have a constitutional obligation to remain in office for longer, nor to resign sooner.”(p. 11) The Committee notes, citing the Institute for Government, that when Brown resigned, it was clear that Labour could not hold on to power and that David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, was the only person who would be able to command the confidence of the House. It was not yet known if Cameron would govern with a minority government, or if the deal with the Lib Dems would result in a coalition, but that didn’t matter.

In short, there are three important points at play here: the right of the incumbent PM to continue in office to face a confidence vote in the House of Commons, the duty of the PM to ensure that the Monarch is not without an advisor, and finally, the obligation of the PM to resign when it is clear that someone else is better placed to command the confidence of the House.

Once one Prime Minister has resigned, another must be appointed. In the UK, this process occurs thus: the incumbent Prime Minister informs the Monarch that he or she is resigning and advises the Monarch on whom should be appointed as the next PM. This person will then be asked by the Monarch to form a government.

Some testifying before the Committee proposed that this process should be replaced by an investiture vote. The Institute for Government defines an investiture vote as “a formal vote among MPs on who should be invited to form the new government.” The final say on the matter would remain with the Monarch, but the power to name the next PM would move from the incumbent Prime Minister to the House of Commons.

As the Committee notes:

At present, there is no transparent link between the results of a general election and the formation of a government. A general election returns a House of Commons, and a Prime Minister can only govern if he can command the confidence of the House. But the Queen chooses a Prime Minister after a general election on the basis of how her advisers think the newly elected House will vote, without asking the House first. This is partly a matter of history, partly to allow a Government to begin work without waiting for the House to meet, and partly because the results of elections are often clear.(p. 12)

Those in favour of an investiture vote, such as the Institute for Government argue that it would be “more comprehensible to the general public, and would demonstrate that the government has the confidence of the Parliament that the people have just democratically elected.”(p. 12) Some added that such a vote would “reduce the risk of the Monarch being drawn into the political process of determining who is best placed to form a government following an election producing a hung Parliament.”(p. 13)

Those who oppose introducing an investiture vote mostly question what added value such a vote would bring. While it might have some value in the event of a hung parliament, it would appear rather pointless following an election which resulted in a clear, single-party majority. A bigger issue is how quickly such a vote could take place. Unlike Canada, where there is no fixed timetable for when the House of Commons meets following an election, the UK Parliament normally meets for the first time on the Wednesday following a Thursday election. However, the first sitting day is reserved for the election of the Speaker, the next three sitting days are for the swearing in of the elected Members. As the Committee notes:

if current practice were continued, the first opportunity that the House would have to hold an investiture vote would be nearly two weeks after the election. Even if this timetable were to be compressed, an investiture vote would cause some delay in any transition between administrations.(p. 13)

In the end, the Committee suggests that it is an idea that they may wish to consider further in the future.

Personally, I have mixed feelings regarding an investiture vote, but lean more towards thinking it isn’t something to be adopted. As stated above, in the event of a party winning a clear majority of seats, it would seem like a rather pointless exercise. The opposition MPs could all vote against the majority party, but it wouldn’t change anything – that party would still form the government, and its leader would be Prime Minister with the confidence of the House – even if that confidence came only from its own members. And in the event of a hung parliament, it could potentially result in a very messy situation. For example, if an election returned a very close result between two main parties, and lots of minor parties, what if neither of the two main parties managed to secure a decisive investiture vote? It might seem far-fetched, but given the current political climate in Canada, for example, I could see something like that happening. If the next election returns another hung parliament (as it most likely will) with the Conservatives still the party with the most seats (as will likely be the case), I could easily see the three opposition parties refusing to support the Conservatives in an investiture vote. However, there is so much acrimony between all the parties, I could also easily see the Liberals losing such a vote, a Liberal-NDP alliance or coalition losing such a vote, etc. I have reservations about giving overly partisan parties yet another tool with which to play highly partisan games. The current system works, both in the UK and in Canada – I see no need to change it.

My next, and probably last installment, will look at the Report’s findings regarding the Coalition’s Programme for Government, and how it compares to a proper party manifesto.

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Thoughts on the monarchy

While campaigning during the course of a general election campaign in Australia, Prime Minister and Labor Party leader Julia Gillard stated:

I obviously am a Republican. I believe that this nation should be a republic. I also believe that this nation has got a deep affection for Queen Elizabeth.

What I would like to see, as Prime Minister, is that we work our way through to an agreement on a model for the republic but I think the appropriate time for the nation to move to being a republic is when we see the monarch change.

Obviously I’m hoping for Queen Elizabeth that she lives a long and happy life and having watched her mother I think there’s every chance that she will live a long and happy life. But I think that’s probably the appropriate point for a transition to a republic.

Debate on the monarchy in Australia is not new. The country held a referendum in 1999 on whether or not to become a republic, with the status quo option winning 54.8% to 45.1%. Republicanism emerged in Australia long before 1999, however. Many of Australia’s earliest colonists were Irish Nationalists exiled by the British for pushing the cause of Irish independence as well as English radicals including Chartists, machinery- wrecking Luddites, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of six farm labourers exiled from Dorset in 1834 for setting up a Trade Union. Many of these migrants brought revolutionary fervour with them and continued political activities in the early penal colony. But they were up against the British Empire at the height of its world dominating power. Small-scale rebellions were swiftly dealt with. In 1854 a group of disgruntled gold miners built a stockade around the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat, declaring it the “Republic of Victoria”. The British response was swift and bloody.

It was well over a century later that the republican cause gained widespread appeal. As the Second World War ended and the British Empire dissolved, the advantages of a close relationship with “the mother country” were less apparent. Some servicemen back from the Pacific believed that Britain had abandoned Australia during the war. This view was confirmed for many when the UK turned its back on Australia as a trading partner and joined the Common Market.

Indeed, demographics, trade and geography all favoured republican independence for decades. The democratic shortcomings in the existing arrangements were exposed in 1975 when the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Australia, dismissed then prime minister, Gough Whitlam. At the time Labor was a monarchist party, but that changed when Whitlam came into conflict with Parliament and was sacked by Governor General Sir John Kerr.

The father of modern Australian republicanism is probably former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating. In 1993 Keating established a “Republic Advisory Committee” to look at the constitutional changes necessary. In the early 1990s Malcolm Turnbull, then a prominent lawyer, started the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). It was an attempt to increase public pressure for constitutional change.

This contrasts quite sharply with debate on the issue in Canada. While it is true that the most recent royal visits – one by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the fall of 2009, and one by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in June 2010 – have sparked various editorials, opinion pieces and pundit debates on whether Canada should remain a monarchy, the issue dies down almost immediately once the Royals have left the country. There isn’t the sustained interest in the issue that seems to exist in Australia, nor is the Canadian republican movement as organized or public. While Canada has held many referendums on various issues, there is no measurable interest in holding one on the question of should Canada become a republic.

I don’t purport to know why these differences exist, but I do have a few ideas as to what might explain them. As stated above, demographics, trade and geography all favoured republican independence in Australia. This is less the case in Canada. Granted, on the demographic front, Canada, like Australia, is increasingly less British. Immigration to both countries is significant, and newcomers hail from countries with no obvious ties to the British crown. Even without a strong republican movement, one would expect that over time, Canada’s demographic make-up would suffice to change public opinion about the role of the monarchy in this country. Despite the demographic changes taking place, however, there are other factors at play. Canada is geographically closer to the United Kingdom, and Canadian trade ties with the UK are stronger than are Australia’s. For example, in 2009, the UK was Canada’s 2nd  most important export market (far behind the US of course), while it was 6th main market for Australian exports. The UK ranked 6th as a source of imports to Canada, while it was 10th for Australia.

Canada’s geographic closeness to the UK probably explains why our trade figures are better than Australia’s, but trade figures alone aren’t enough to engender emotional attachment to the monarchy. Personally, I believe the monarchy helps define Canada for many Canadians as something that makes us different from Americans. Australia doesn’t have to worry about sharing a border with a country with ten times its population. Canadians not only look just like Americans, we sound like them too (to many foreigners anyway), and Canadians are notoriously sensitive about being mistaken for Americans when travelling abroad. No one mistakes an Australian for an American. For a Brit, perhaps, but certainly not an American. The cultural shadow of the US simply does not hang over Australia the way it does over Canada. Perhaps that explains in part why there is less interest in loosing our bonds with the monarchy.

Another important factor is that our main constitutional debate has focused for many decades, and continues to focus, primarily on the issue of Quebec’s role in Confederation. Similarly, when debate on political reform does arise in Canada, it tends to focus on issues such as senate reform and electoral reform. Australia already has an elected senate, so there is no need to debate that issue there. They also have various voting systems in place both federally and at the state level, ranging from IRV, to AV, to STV. While some of these options may be little better than First-Past-the-Post, the fact remains that FPTP is not used anywhere in Australia, while any attempt to adopt something other than FPTP in Canada has failed, while voter dissatisfaction increases and turnout continues to decline. My point here is simply that for most Canadians interested in political and constitutional reform, I don’t think becoming a republic is at the top of anyone’s list.

I don’t doubt that one day, Australia will indeed become a republic. Will Canada follow that road as well? Perhaps – once we address what I, and many others, consider much more urgently needed political and constitutional reforms.

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