This op-ed was published on August 7, 2021 by The Globe and Mail.
Various commentators have responded to the birth of Prince George not just with the hearty congratulations that any parents deserve, but also with extended opinions about the monarchy’s role in Canada’s government that mainly say “It ain’t broke, so no need to fix it” and/or “It can’t be fixed anyway”.
However, surveys over the past several years show that Canadians believe that the monarchy’s role is broken in a couple of key ways — the questions that remain are: could the monarchy’s role be fixed, and if so, how?
The first way in which surveys show that a majority of Canadians want the monarchy’s role in our government fixed is to remove it as Canada’s Head of State. Some may react to this point by saying — wait I thought I saw a survey last year that says a majority of Canadian voters like the monarchy, and another that says a large majority think Queen Elizabeth has done a great job, and another that says a majority favour Prince William as King over Prince Charles.
All true, but those surveys did not ask about the monarchy’s role in Canadian government. When more than 2,000 Canadian voters were asked in February 2013 in a survey commissioned by Your Canada, Your Constitution (YCYC) and conducted by Harris-Decima, 55% said they want to change to a democratically chosen Canadian-born head of state, while only 34% want to continue with a member of the British royal family.
Making this full change is not easy, but it is not impossible. Yes, the federal legislature and all 10 provincial legislatures would have to agree on a Constitution-changing proposal to retire the monarchy and a new way of choosing our Head of State, and this agreement would be difficult to achieve. However, 33 of the 54 countries in the Commonwealth association of countries have made this change.
The second related way that Canadians want the monarchy’s current role fixed is to give clear powers to more independent and democratically legitimate Governor General and provincial lieutenant governors. A survey of more than 2,000 Canadians in May 2012 commissioned by YCYC and conducted by Harris-Decima in May 2012 found that 67% want a democratically chosen Governor General, and lieutenant governors.
And public support for these changes seems likely to grow in the future, and therefore make them even more possible, as more than 60% of voters age 18-34 want to change to a Canadian-born head of state, 55% of those age 35 to 64, while only 47% of those age 65 and older want this change. As well, 83% of those 18-24 want the head of state to be elected, 66% of those age 25-64, while only 54% of people age 65 or older want this change.
Currently, the Prime Minister selects the Governor General however s/he wants (the Queen has the power to reject the Prime Minister’s choice, but never does). This means the Governor General owes the Prime Minister his/her job, even though a key role of the Governor General is to stop the Prime Minister’s abusing his/her powers such as opening and shutting down the legislature and calling elections whenever s/he wants even though the federal government, 8 provincial governments and the Northwest Territories have enacted laws fixing election dates.
As well, the Governor General is the judge in key situations including which political party demonstrates the confidence of the legislature to govern after each election, and whether that confidence has been lost, and whether another party should govern or an election called.
The lieutenant governors, who are appointed by the Governor General as the Queen’s representative, as advised by the Prime Minister, play these key judge-like roles in the provincial governments.
As representatives of the unelected monarchy, the Governor General and lieutenant governors currently have no democratic legitimacy to stand up to a Prime Minister or premier who abuses their powers, and as an appointee of the Prime Minister, the Governor General also lacks independence.
The Governor General and lieutenant governors also have no written rules to point to if they even thought about saying no to an abuse of power by a Prime Minister or premier. Only vague, unwritten constitutional conventions (ie. practices) based on very few past situations guide their decisions.
These are the main reasons no Governor General or lieutenant governor has said no to any Prime Minister or premier for decades, even when the public and media and many constitutional experts felt they were clearly abusing their powers, and loudly and publicly condemned the abuses.
This could be changed tomorrow by the Prime Minister. Canada’s Constitution does not require any specific process for the Prime Minister to choose the nominee for the Governor General or lieutenant governors (the lack of clear rules led a House of Commons Committee to recommend in 2004 a full review of the role, responsibilities and appointment process for the Governor General). The Prime Minister could work with other federal party leaders, or party leaders across Canada, to establish an independent commission to search for merit-based, qualified candidates, and then have all or a majority of party leaders approve the choices. Or the Prime Minister could propose a bill to elect the Governor General and lieutenant governors – or change to any other system the Prime Minister wants.
As well, given that nothing in Canada’s written Constitution requires it, the Prime Minister could simply not ask the Queen’s approval of the next Governor General. If the Queen accepted not being asked, it would change the unwritten convention/practice of seeking the Queen’s approval.
As for having clear rules to enforce, a survey of more than 2,000 Canadian voters in December 2012 commissioned by YCYC and conducted by Harris-Decima in May 2012 found that 84% want clear written rules in the areas the Governor General and lieutenant governors make decisions, with 80%-90% support from every type of voter.
Britain, Australia and New Zealand in their public, all-party approved Cabinet manuals, along with most countries in the world in their constitutions, have clear written rules that restrict the powers of the prime minister/president in areas such as opening and shutting down the legislature and calling elections, as well as rules concerning which party rules after each election, what a vote of confidence is, etc.
The Prime Minister and other federal party leaders, and premiers and opposition leaders in every province, could write down these rules together starting tomorrow, fully enforceable as laws, or partially enforceable as resolutions of the legislature.
Party leaders in Ontario and Quebec have the most reason to do this, as their lieutenant governors will very likely be making crucial decisions soon about governance and elections like the Governor General made during the 2004-2011 minority federal governments. The desire to have clear, fair rules during minority governments was what spurred politicians in Britain, Australia and New Zealand to expand their Cabinet manuals to cover these key decision-making areas.
So with Canada’s 150th birthday approaching in 2017, will political parties and their leaders across Canada respond and make the fixes (difficult as some of the fixes may be to implement) that a majority of Canadian voters to the role of the monarchy in our governments, to make Canada’s head of state and lieutenant governors Canadian, democratic and empowered with clear rules?
Should a new Canadian Constitution make key changes in the areas mentioned above? You can see key info and send a letter letting key politicians across Canada know what you think HERE.