Retiring the Monarchy

Alright, what longstanding Canadian institution shall we dispense with today?

Queen Elizabeth II has been all over the news of late in honour of her Diamond Jubilee. Never satisfied, some of those rabble-rousing muckrakers in the NDP have refused to join in the festivities. That killjoy Pat Martin in particular, MP for Winnipeg Centre, is using the opportunity to call on Canada to sever its ties to the British monarchy.

This may not be something I would describe as an urgent national priority, but it is worth thinking about. If we were to start over from scratch, would we want a hereditary ruler as head of state — even if he or she carried little real power?

The glowing reviews of the Jubilee celebrations in London offer some hint of why one might reply in the affirmative. The Queen is a permanent and stable figure in our fickle world of politics, representing the immortal state rather than just this or that government. She stands above the fray, providing an air of dignity in contrast to the partisan bickering of our elected officials.

But is that what Canadians today really get out of the monarchy? Or are the royals just a bunch of overblown celebrities? There is nothing wrong with the latter of course, but why must Canadian taxpayers subsidize such tabloid fodder to the tune of $50 million per year — a larger sum per capita than what the Brits pay? If we are to dish out that kind of money, shouldn’t we expect some kind of concrete public service in return — something more than the ephemera of televised parties and weddings and the superficially comforting thought that we are different than Americans?

Well, the skeptic will rightly ask, what is the alternative?

The easiest answer is that we could just carry on as usual with the Governor General. He or she would no longer simply stand in for the British monarch as a representative, but would instead become Canada’s official head of state.

But if prime ministers are to continue appointing Governors General, only now without long-held traditions to restrain the drive for unaccountable power, might not this create a conflict of interest?

Indeed it might. Perhaps the Governor General could be elected.

But why is it alright to spend exorbitant sums on an election — the one in 2011 cost $291 million — if it is unacceptable to pay for a time-honoured hereditary institution? In fact, why pay anything for a Governor General — elected or appointed — if indeed the public purse is oh-so-precious?

My imagined skeptic may have a point here. Why not get rid of the office of Governor General altogether? The prime minister could occupy the dual role of head of state and head of government. This would not require Canada’s transformation into a presidential system. Botswana and South Africa are both parliamentary democracies whose “presidents” (we could continue using the term “prime minister” — it’s not important) play both functions.

Then who would step in on those rare occasions when the Governor General is called upon to cease smiling for the camera and do some real work? How would governments be formed in minority parliaments? Who would grant (or refuse?) a prime minister’s request for a prorogation?

These matters could very easily be solved by simply agreeing upon procedures, establishing them in law, and leaving no room for personal judgement. Let us take government formation as an example. After an election, the law could give the party with the most seats a fixed maximum amount of time (two weeks, let’s say) to form a government. This prospective government would be required to survive an investiture vote in the House of Commons before taking office. If the party has a majority, completing this task would be easy. If not, it would have to negotiate with other parties with the end goal of fashioning a coalition or some lesser agreement. If this first party fails to form a government, the torch would be passed to the second party. And so the procedure would continue until we have a government.

Easy, right? Canada needs no Queen, King, Governor General, or any other figurehead. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can devote our public funds to serving the public. So please join me again soon for future installments in my ongoing series about how I know better than the wise, the rich, and the powerful. Until next time!

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