Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On governance (3): The Crown.

So, yeah. The Crown. This could be a really short post -- hell, by my standards, it probably will be.

Here's the thing. Constitutionally, we need the Crown. We can't get rid of the monarch, or at least the Governor-General, without overhauling the whole document. I'm not opposed to that, in principle, but it would be tremendously difficult. Just eliminating the position, and dropping all the powers onto Parliament, would -- assuming no significant portion of the reforms I talked about yesterday come to pass -- make the Prime Minister a king. (Yes, Harper probably already thinks he is one. That's not the point.)

However. The Crown is represented by a foreign-born, foreign resident individual. The powers of the Crown are conferred by by fact of birth. And the Crown has power of many basic features of our government: the passage of all laws, the conduct of all elections, and the appointment of Senators and judges. There is no sense in which the institution is legitimate from the perspective of individual autonomy and self-determination.

I tend to think that this leaves us with two ways to go forward.

One, something like what the Irish and the Indians did (to pick two Commonwealth countries that have elected Presidents). That is, have as the head of a state an elected official -- a President -- who holds approximately the same powers as the Governor-General. This has the side-effect of leaving the Prime Minister's power basically intact, with all its attendant problems. It does, on the plus side, give the President some legitimacy in opposing the will of Parliament or the Prime Minister, however.

For example, prior to the 2011 election, some were expressing worries that, if elected to another minority government, Harper might just refuse to recall Parliament, possibly for months. The President of India has generally compelled Prime Ministers to recall Parliament within two to three weeks, in order to demonstrate their majority. (After Prime Minister Charan Singh failed to recall Parliament, after not receiving a majority.) Another President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, has exercised his power to send a bill back to Parliament for reconsideration (without effect, as it turned out). For a Governor-General of Canada to do either -- or, even more strangely, the Queen herself -- would be unheard of. Our Governor-General couldn't even be bothered to consider the widely-expressed view that the Prime Minister had lost the confidence of the House -- indeed, given the nature of the office, probably couldn't consider it. (The King-Byng affair actually doesn't count, given that it occurred before the Statue of Westminster was enacted. The office of Governor-General isn't nearly as strong as it was.)

Two, create a position like the American or French president. That is, a President of Canada who has substantial powers -- not merely reserve or formal powers, but the ability to direct policy, appoint officials, sign treaties, and so on. I don't know of a single former British colony that has pulled this one off in any respectable way. Some of the former British colonies in Africa have done it, but the recent political history of Africa is not something to emulate. For example, Ghana replaced the Governor-General with an elected President with expanded powers. However, the expanded powers of the President -- well beyond anything associated with the Governor-General -- were passed in a referendum, in 1964, which was very probably rigged (99.91% in favour), leading to a few coups, some periods of military dictatorship, and so on. Suffice to say, not the best example of how Canada might peacefully transition to a semi-presidential system. (Although, fun fact: there was a President Rawlings of Ghana.)

Some other former colonies -- Cyprus, for example -- have done it, in a way that might be more instructive. But, even then, the countries that have succeeded are fairly small. (Cyprus has a deep ethnic division like Canada's anglophone/francophone division, but it's also got a smaller population than Toronto.) So, while it might be nice to have a President with some significant power, I think the better way to check the power of the Prime Minister is to increase the power of Parliament, as indicated yesterday.

Overall, I'd favour option one -- phasing out the Governor-General in favour of an elected President, with minimal ceremonial/formal powers, able to exercise those powers if absolutely necessary, but generally deferential to Parliament.

No comments: