Royal baby bill nears final vote despite U.K. changes

As the U.K.'s Parliament proceeds with amendments to its bill to change the royal line of succession, the timing and wording of Canada's legislation to agree to the British bill is being called into question.

'What are we assenting to?' asks Liberal senator, noting amendments underway in U.K.

The pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, centre, flanked by her husband Prince William, receives a salute after presenting a traditional sprig of shamrock to the 1st Battalion Irish Guards on St. Patrick's Day. Canada's bill to agree to changes in the royal line of succession is set for third reading in the Senate as early as this week. (Matt Dunham/AP Photo)

The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee finished its quick review of Canada's bill to assent to changes in the royal line of succession last week, setting up Canada to be the first country to pass changes to allow any first-born child, boy or girl, to inherit the throne.

The committee wrapped up its clause-by-clause review in minutes, and is set to send C-53 back to the Senate for third reading as early as this week.

But the timing and wording of Canada's legislation — which does not spell out specific amendments to the ancient laws governing the monarchy but simply gives its assent to a British bill — was called into question by some senators.

After a speedy passage for the bill so far, Quebec Liberal Senator Joan Fraser indicated she may propose amendments at third reading.

C-53 passed with unanimous consent in the House of Commons on Feb. 4, with no debate or committee review by MPs.

Senators heard testimony on the bill at only two committee meetings.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson appeared last Thursday morning, along with Warren Newman, a senior constitutional lawyer from the justice department, and Joe Wild, the Privy Council official who's been in charge of co-ordinating the legislation with the U.K. and the 14 other countries, called realms, where Queen Elizabeth reigns. 

Quebec Liberal Senator Serge Joyal noted that because the bill was fast-tracked, last Thursday's testimony from Nicholson was the first time the justice minister had ever spoken about the bill.

Nicholson called the principles behind the bill's reforms — enshrining gender equality and removing a prohibition on marrying a Catholic — "non-controversial." 

Nicholson echoed Heritage Minister James Moore's portrayal of the bill when it was introduced Jan. 30, calling it a "straightforward approach" to modernizing the monarchy.

"The U.K. is not making law for Canada," Nicholson said, saying C-53 reflects a "sound interpretation" of the legal precedents, including bills passed in Canada following the abdication crisis triggered by King Edward VIII in 1937 and when royal titles were changed in 1947 and 1953.

Nicholson quoted former prime minister Louis St-Laurent, who said during the debate over the 1953 legislation that "Her Majesty is now the Queen of Canada. But she is the Queen of Canada because she is the Queen of the United Kingdom and the people of Canada are happy to recognize as their sovereign, the sovereign of the United Kingdom."

Approving a moving target?

But the U.K. legislation that Canada's bill would approve has not yet passed in the British Parliament. It's scheduled for third reading in the British House of Lords at Westminister April 22.

After that, several amendments made to the original legislation will be considered for incorporation into the final wording of the U.K. law.

Fraser pointed out during Nicholson's appearance Thursday that C-53 specifies Canada is giving its assent to a bill "laid before the Parliament of the United Kingdom."

She said this wording leaves the impression Canada would be approving only the original draft of the bill, not amendments from the British House of Commons or House of Lords.

One of those amendments, she noted, is significant in that it clarifies which marriages (and whose heirs) among those in the royal line of succession are considered void because the monarch's consent was not obtained in advance.

"What are we assenting to?" Fraser asked the minister and his officials. "Which version?"

Should the monarchy be abolished?

A poll released March 18 by the national educational foundation Your Canada, Your Constitution, found that a small majority of Canadians (55 per cent) want to have a Canadian head of state instead.

Nationally, only 34 per cent wanted to continue with the British Royal family. A very strong majority of the Quebecers surveyed favoured a Canadian head of state.

The data was gathered between Jan. 31-Feb. 11 through Harris/Decima's teleVox, a national omnibus survey. 2,024 Canadians were surveyed, leading to a margin of error of +/- 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Nicholson acknowledged Fraser's was a "good question" but said that because all 16 countries will be bringing changes into force simultaneously regardless of when their individual bills pass, there is still a way for Canada to adjust for any U.K. amendments, if necessary.

Wild said the Harper government's approach "maintains flexibility" to deal with any issues that arise with the tricky sequencing.

That didn't satisfy the Liberal senators.

"It's really bothering me," B.C. Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer said to Wild later in the meeting. "Why would we not just wait [until the final version of the U.K. law has passed]?"

Wild said Canada "did not want to be the last" to approve the changes, or hold up the overall reforms, and the government had to manage the schedule of the Commons and avoid a situation where the bill's passage was pushed back to next fall.

"We didn't see a signficant legal risk in moving [the bill] now," Wild said, emphasizing the basic principles of enshrining gender equality and removing the prohibition on marrying a Catholic have not been affected by the U.K. amendments in question.

What's the rush?

Although the approaching birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's first child draws media attention to moves meant to modernize the monarchy, the royal baby's exact birthday is not a factor in the timing of these reforms.

When the changes were first proposed by British Prime Minister David Cameron before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia in October 2011, all the countries agreed the changes would come into force simultaneously, retroactive to the date of their meeting.

Not all 16 realms are passing legislation to enact the reforms. Some countries may only need the agreement of their executive (cabinet) or feel they've already given consent in writing through the same kind of letter Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent to the British prime minister initially, agreeing to the changes in principle.

 No countries have passed legislation so far.

In Australia, Wild told the committee, there remains a dispute over whether the bill needs to be passed by both the state and federal legislatures. The state of Queensland has objected to the Australian federal government's view that passing it at the federal level is sufficient.

The Senate committee heard from four other witnesses last week, including experts on the constitution and the monarchy.

Despite some media commentary questioning whether the Harper government's approach to this bill is constitutionally sound, none of the witnesses suggested significant changes to the bill.


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca