“For myself, sir… I prefer British liberty to American equality.” -Richard Cartwright, 1865 (Canada’s Minister of Finance, 1874-1878)
April’s Royal wedding was an event that one might have expected to ignite a discussion about the monarchy’s relevance to Canada. Unfortunately, the bride’s dress received more media attention than the constitutional status of the House of Windsor. Victoria Day provides us another opportunity, minus the distractions.
But while the pundits didn’t much fuss about it, a significant percentage of Canadians want to do away with the monarchy. According to a 2010 Angus Reid poll, 52% of Canadians support revisiting constitutional debates to discuss replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state.
While it seems unlikely that federal and provincial governments will revisit the constitution for that sole purpose, the constitution may well be opened up for other reasons, such as to reform the Senate. If our most recent constitutional negotiations are any indication, once the constitution is open for debate, every interest group will push for inclusion of their issue. Republicans would certainly be among those groups. It would be dangerous to sleepwalk into fundamental constitutional changes without a substantive debate.
In the abstract the monarchy seems like a relic that can be easily dispensed with, but the introduction of an elected head of state would be a major disruption in our system of government. A brief look at the work of John Locke, the intellectual godfather of republicanism, illustrates the problem.
Locke is known primarily for his Two Treatises of Civil Government. In it, Locke’s argument is that all government must rest on the consent of the governed. While this seems like a straightforward concept, it is actually quite complex. After all, no society has ever existed in which everyone individually consents to being governed. Locke’s theory of consent has been vigorously debated, but those who accept his arguments typically claim his theory rests on the notion of “tacit consent.” While people don’t individually consent to be governed, reason tells us that we require a government that will enforce the rule of law.
While Locke argued vigorously against absolute hereditary monarchy, he never argued against a constitutional monarchy. Indeed, Locke seemed to favour a constitutional monarchy over a republic.
Locke believed that so long as the executive (monarchy) had the trust of the people, it should be trusted with the prerogative to “do many things of choice, which the laws do not prescribe” so long as that power is used “for the benefit of the community.”
This is why Locke supported the ascent to the throne of William of Orange. Locke’s support derived from the fact that William accepted the Declaration of Rights in 1689, which required him to abide by the rule of parliament. This made William a mere executor of the law, rather than its creator. A hereditary duty to protect the constitution is not the same as absolute hereditary power.
The above may seem arcane, but it is relevant to the reserve powers retained by the Crown, which are constitutionally significant. The power to decide whether to accept the request of a prime minister to dissolve the House of Commons, or to decide whether the government commands the confidence of the house is crucial. In an era dominated by minority governments, this is nothing to take lightly. Since these situations often lack clear cut answers, the executor of these powers needs to be impartial. Severing the link between the monarchy and the Governor General would compromise this impartiality.
While having an unelected head of state seems controversial, many important functions ought to be unelected. Take judges, for instance. Canadians are rightfully suspicious of electing judges because politicizing the courts would change their incentives. On the monarchy, since they do not have authority to meddle in the day-to-day business of government, they take pains to avoid any semblance of doing so.
Aside from the conflation of absolute monarchies and constitutional monarchies, the opposition to the monarchy largely stems from the notion of fairness. After all, why should people be born into privilege at the expense of the taxpayers? While the royal family is arguably more profligate than necessary, the fairness argument is misguided. Government doesn’t exist to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be a President. It exists to enforce the rule of law. In that context, the monarchy should be seen as just another office of government. If the Defence department spent too much, people wouldn’t call for its abolition. The argument is no more convincing when applied to the monarchy.