Friday, 28 June 2013

Get Off Your Duff: Democracy Watch Continues to Fail Basic Civics


Recently the founder of Democracy Watch has once again been given a soap box from which to preach his unique brand of republicanism. An opinion piece in the Toronto Star unduly conveys that notion that he is an expert in his field. The problem is not that he is a republican – the idea of monarchy is morally repugnant and runs contrary to modern conceptions equity and fairness - but that he is consistently wrong when it comes to the subject. His sense of the Canadian Constitution – both as a text and the elements of convention that animate it – and the workings of the Canadian Crown are grossly inaccurate and detract from a serious discussion of the subject.


As part of the campaign for ‘civic literacy’ on the subject, the organization has launched an online petition to elect American satirist Stephen Colbert as “King of Canada”. Certainly this is intended as a tongue and cheek attempt to capitalize on Colbert’s cachet among young Canadians – a demographic potentially more likely to support republicanism, or at least not to connect with monarchy beyond celebrity and facinators – and to piggyback on the exposure this will likely generate on television. It is, however, extremely contradictory on two fronts.

First, it contradicts its desire for a serious discussion of the subject by treating it as a joke. It reduces the role of head of state despite their claims that it is an important office. Second, it is more than ironic that the group decries the (false) influence of the British Crown in Canadian affairs while inviting an American to take up the office instead. These contradictions aside, the rest of the petition relies heavily on misunderstandings of Canada’s parliamentary institutions and history while essentially making its own facts in order to push its agenda.

The first is the nature of the Crown itself, whether it is British or Canadian. This is actually a timely debate as it informs some of the issues that will inform changes to the succession. The petition makes it clear that it sees our head of state as British: “Hey Canada, it’s time to tell the British Monarchy to take off, eh”. Of course, the British did take off and nearly a century ago. While it can be difficult to pin a precise date for when the Crown became fully Canadianized, it nevertheless has. The Statute of Westminster (1931) recognized the equality and independence of the white settler dominions. Successive governments – and related court decisions – helped to establish the Canadian Crown – and its monarchy – as unique entities from the British (and, indeed, Australian etc) Crown.

Few (if any) respectable voices continue to argue that the British Crown oversees Canadian affairs. Indeed, the Idle No More Movements (and First Nations groups during the patriation period) found that the British Crown quite clearly acknowledges that it has no role to play in Canadian affairs and that whatever force the British Crown had and whatever treaties it struck, are now the responsibility of the Canadian Crown.

From here the falsehoods multiply. “In Canada the Head of State is a representative of the Queen of England appointed by the Prime Minister. The current Head of State is Governor General David Johnston." Well, first of all. There is no “Queen of England”. The Crowns of Scotland and England merged centuries ago (the Union of the Crowns), shortly thereafter followed by the union of the respective kingdoms. Second, the Queen is head of state, not the Governor General. This is a very real distinction. If you cannot grasp this simple fact you had better cede the battlefield. More to the point, the GG does not ‘represent’ the Queen in the manner inferred here – that is, representing preferences and acting on one’s behalf – but exercises delegated powers. The Queen does not factor into the equation in any real sense.

Next, the petition and its backers once again underscore just how incredibly vacuous they are when it comes to understanding the foundational architecture of Canadian government: responsible government. The petition argues that:
“The Governor General and the provincial Lieutenant Governors, have no democratic legitimacy and cannot stand up to potential abuses of power by the Prime Minister and provincial premiers who appoint them. 
“So we need a Head of State who has the democratic authority to enforce the constitution and uphold the public interest.
First, it should be noted, that provincial premiers do not appoint vice-regal representatives, the federal government does. Beyond this, there’s a major flaw here. It proceeds as if the Prime Minister lacks democratic legitimacy but the reality is that, under a Parliamentary system of responsible government, a ministry exercises its authority solely on the basis of having the confidence of an elected assembly – the House of Commons – and therefor derives an electoral and democratic mandate from the House. Democracy Watch would have us enter into an intractable mess with an elected head of state in this way.

Why would the head of state – a role that is very limited, that by convention makes all but a few of its decisions on advice – have more authority to overrule a ministry with the confidence of the House? This reflects a poor understanding of (the theory) of modern responsible government. The Prime Minister exercises certain powers precisely because he has a mandate to do so and the support of the Commons. Arguments to the contrary are relying on a different conception of a democratic threshold – one advocating electoral reform – that has no bearing on the role of the executive and the Crown. Would a Prime Minister with a winning mandate under a new electoral regime - and, for argument’s sake, with a majority not simply a plurality of the vote – be forced to acquiesce to an elected head of state with an equal or smaller mandate?

Finally, the campaign argues:
“Canada’s Head of State needs to be modernized – we need a democratically elected Canadian to represent all Canadians and one who is clearly empowered to ensure a democratic government.”
One of the problems here is that an elected head of state would likely be politicized and change the balance in government. Moreover, this statement ignores the fact that, in short, as it currently stands, the Crown – and role of the Governor General – is in place precisely to ensure that a democratically elected government is in place. That is its fundamental democratic role.


Certainly there is a discussion to be had about the role of monarchy in Canada, one that is, as mentioned above, quite timely. While monarchy may be out of place in a modern democracy, the current constitutional arrangement works and it works, in part, because the monarch’s role is reduced to little more than ceremony. The discussion, however, cannot properly be had when it refuses to accede to reality and ignores basic constitutional realities. 

To simply ignore the fact that abolishing the monarchy would take ten provinces in agreement is unlikely is to advocate a pipe dream. More to the point, advocating that popular sentiment can simply override entrenched constitutional provisions is shockingly dangerous. It is precisely the argument made to limit the rights of some segments of society. Encouraging civic literacy is a laudable goal, but propagating misinformation and distortions under the guise of civic literacy is simply a political ploy. If Democracy Watch wants to make the argument for abolishing the monarchy (and there is one) it should do so without distorting the reality of what it opposes. 

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