The wrong model for a Canadian republic


Image: The hearing given by the Doge in the Sala del Collegio in Doge’s Palace by Francesco Guardi, via Wikipedia

CBC quotes Tom Freda, director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, saying:

By simply removing our link between the Governor General and the monarchy, that makes us a parliamentary republic. That is our goal.

Our Governor General acts in the name of the Queen. We would like that to change. We would like the Governor General to be our official head of state, not our de facto head of state.

No other difference: no change to our royal institutions, no changes to our history or culture, and above all, no changes to royal visits! We’d still welcome the Royals.

It’s not that simple. Read on to see why.

Keep in mind that the governor general is appointed (and, potentially, dismissed) by the Queen, on the advice of the prime minister; this advice is normally understood as binding, and the Queen’s involvement as a mere formality, so when Freda says we could become a republic simply by removing the link between governor general and Queen I assume he means that the final constitutional authority to appoint or dismiss the governor general would pass to the prime minister. But in fact this is no simple change. It would radically undermine responsible government and lead to a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister.

One of the governor general’s crucial constitutional functions is to appoint – and possibly dismiss – the prime minister. In Canada the appropriate choice for the governor general to make in these matters is usually absolutely clear. For example, when the Liberals won a majority in the last election, Stephen Harper could plainly see that he would not have the confidence of the incoming House of Commons and he resigned. If he had, for some unfathomable reason, decided to meet the House after all, he would have resigned after failing to secure confidence. Note: he would have resigned. The House of Commons has the power to revoke the prime minister’s legitimacy; it does not have the power to remove the prime minister from office. Only the governor general has this power. Knowing that the Governor General can remove him or her from office, a prime minister has every reason to resign once his or her legitimacy has been revoked by the House and there is no prospect of reacquiring legitimacy via a general election (which can also only be called with the authorization of the governor general).

If, on the other hand, the prime minister appoints and dismisses the governor general, the situation is quite different. If the prime minister anticipates difficulty in a new parliament, he or she can appoint a close ally as head of state, guaranteeing that the governor general’s powers will only be used in ways that are beneficial to the current government. If the prime minister meets a hostile House with a friendly governor general backing the government, he or she can remain in power indefinitely no matter what happens in the legislature. Not even the budget sets any ultimate limit on the government’s lifespan; time limits on the issuance of governor general’s special warrants can be circumvented by repeatedly dissolving parliament. This has the added benefit of forcing the opposition parties out of competition by depleting their election funds, eventually delivering parliament back into the hands of the governing party.

This particular scenario, which involves a prime minister exercising his or her new power over the head of state to the fullest extent, is clearly far-fetched. But it is not so hard to believe that the prospect of a prime minister exercising these powers to even a limited degree can profoundly alter the expectations and the behaviour of all the relevant actors, from the governor general to the voters, and I find it hard to believe that anyone in Canada thinks our political system would benefit from the prime minister being given these new powers. Frankly, I think the people at Citizens for a Canadian Republic just haven’t given the issue very much thought.

Of course there is no reason why Canada could not become a republic as long as the threshold for the relevant amending formula is met. The decision to abolish the Canadian monarchy would be regrettable, in my view, but it would not necessarily turn out to be a complete debacle. There are many flourishing parliamentary republics, and among them Canadians can find many models for constitutional reform. But none of these republics take the form that Freda advocates for our country, and there is good reason for this; it would be a recipe for a utterly unique, made-in-Canada disaster.


One thought on “The wrong model for a Canadian republic

  1. I found your post informative, clear and interesting. Thank you! And your introductory line: ‘It’s not that simple. Read on to see why’ certainly grabbed my attention. And by the post delivers clearly what it promises: to point out the ‘why’ its not so simple. Well done.

    Sarah L Tweedale, Curious Spectacles Photos and Photo Art, Galiano Island, BC and >


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