Inside Politics

UPDATED - Is that a (theoretical) constitutional (meta) crisis I see before me?

Although it was almost entirely overshadowed by the battle between Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau and Canadian Press journalist Jennifer Ditchburn, a newly created "educational foundation" aimed at "involving Canadians in their democracy" appears have set off a few fireworks of its own with the release of a new survey that purported to show a slim majority of Canadians may be ready to move away from the monarchy in favour of a "fully independent" Canada:

Today, the new national educational foundation Your Canada, Your Constitution (YCYC) published the results of its recent national survey of 2,030 Canadians on the question of making Canada a fully independent country by retiring the British monarchy as the head of governments in Canada.  The results show that a majority of Canadians (52%) want this change made, while 43% do not.

The YCYC survey, conducted by Harris/Decima from May 10th through May 20th, asked 2,030 Canadians ages 18 or older whether they agreed or disagreed with changing Canada's Constitution to make Canada a fully independent country by retiring the British monarchy as head of Canada's federal and provincial governments.

Compared to the rest of Canada, many more people in Quebec (76%) support this change than do not (17%).  Outside of Quebec, an average of 44% support this change, while 51% do not.

Support among people younger than 34 is much higher (57%) than among people older than 35 (50%).

Given that result, as well as that of a similar survey posted last week which showed 65% of Canadians "want clear rules to regulate key decision-making powers of Governor General and provincial lieutenant governors, enforced by Supreme Court of Canada," the release concludes that "a majority of Canadians" would seem to agree with "changes to the fundamental structure and exercise of powers in Canadian governments." 

But not everyone, it seems, would agree. A few hours later, Helen Forsey, daughter of one of this country's most venerated constitutional scholars, sent out a scathing response via the parliamentary press gallery listserv, in which she decried the survey as "appalling," and lamented that "Canada's ailing democracy" had "suffered another blow" with its publication:
 
The survey began with a sweeping misrepresentation, and at no point touched base with reality. It stated, falsely, that our present Constitution gives four far-reaching and outrageously dictatorial "decision-making powers" to the "British monarch," the governor general, and the provincial lieutenant governors. Then it asked two thousand Canadians whether or not they liked this imaginary tyranny.
 
Naturally, most did not.
 
"Anyone who knows anything at all about our parliamentary system knows that the powers of the Crown are miniscule," says Forsey, whose recent book, Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage, delves into these questions. "In a very few extremely exceptional circumstances, the 'reserve powers' of the governor general and the lieutenant governors can be important, but even then they are hedged around by restrictions and practical limits that make them subject always to the will of our elected representatives."
 
For example, contrary to the statements in the survey, the governor general has no power to reject a law passed by "our elected politicians" in Parliament. (The provincial lieutenant governors may, in rare cases, "reserve" a bill, but then it is up to the federal government â€" made up of elected politicians â€" to make the final decision. In practice, it is hard to imagine this kind of federal challenge to a provincial law.)
 
The survey's assertions about the other three royal "powers" are just as wrong-headed, says Forsey.
 
"This kind of pernicious misinformation plays straight into the hands of those in power who would love to keep us barking up non-existent trees. That way they can on ignoring, abusing and destroying the democratic rights and protections that our Constitution actually does provide â€" mechanisms of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy that have evolved through centuries of popular struggle and citizen vigilance."
Although Forsey acknowledged that YCYC was operating under "good intentions," that didn't deter her from denouncing the "massive disservice" done to Canadians  "by circulating this ludicrous caricature of our constitution." She even wondered why the polling firm responsible for the survey, Harris Decima, could have agreed to involve itself in "such a gross distortion of reality."

Her parting words:
 
"We have real tyrannies to deal with these days," said Forsey, who, like her father, has a history of vigorous opposition to the abuse of power. "As citizens, we cannot afford to waste our energies on imaginary ones."

Over to you, YCYC!  

UPDATE - Here's what YCYC coordinator Duff Conacher had to say about the controversy via email: 

Kady's post ignores the fact that both news releases mention clearly that politicians from all political parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand have agreed to, and approved to varying degrees, written rules on such key governing situations that involve the Governor General (along with the Prime Minister and Cabinet) such as what constitutes a vote of confidence, when Parliament must be opened and can be shut down, when elections can be called, what a government can do just before and during an election (in terms of Cabinet appointments etc.), what happens after an election etc. 

Helen Forsey ignored this as well in her release, as well as ignoring that many constitutional experts believe that the Governor General had the discretionary power to reject the December 2008 request by Prime Minister Harper to shut down Parliament, and the discretionary power to hand power to the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition if they had voted against the Conservative government in December 2008, and the discretionary power to reject the September 2008 snap election call request by Prime Minister Harper. 

The fact that experts disagree whether or not the Governor General has these powers seems to be a clear reason to clarify these powers, which is all the survey asked Canadians about. 

YCYC's two news releases did not imply a resentment toward the British monarchy -- all they did was ask Canadians what they thought of the current structure and operation of fundamental powers and decision-making processes of Canadian governments as set out in Canada's Constitution, and whether they wanted changes to the structure and operations, changes similar to what politicians from all parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Tags: blackberry jungle, duff conacher, helen forsey, politicalwonkwatch, your canada, your constitution

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