Constitutional Reform: Let’s Not Go There

In the National Post (January 21, 2011), Michael Bliss and John Fraser argued that it is time to cast off Canada’s connection with the British monarchy.

John Von Heyking wrote in reply: “Removing the monarchy would involve whole-scale constitutional transformation or even a revolution. Such a process would make the struggles over Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accords look like an afternoon tea. As with those struggles, removal of the Crown would invite every sector in society to create its replacement (e.g., a president) in its own image” (Letter to the Editor, Post Jan 22).

Von Heyking’s right.

You would think Canadians had learned something from the three decades of our “constitutional odyssey.”  Quarrels about constitutional reform can be bitter, bitter.

A loss in the parliamentary arena is tolerable because the Westminster parliament is dedicated to the idea that the views of the political opposition must be honoured, recorded, and published. Citizens are required to obey laws passed by the legislative majority, but are not obliged to like them and are not obliged to keep quiet about their dislike. Moreover, dissent on a point of statutory law is not merely tolerable; it is something to be encouraged. Free and open debate about statutory law is the defining characteristic of a free country.

Parliament’s laws can be amended or repealed by a subsequent parliamentary vote.  If repealed they can nevertheless be restored in whole or part. The constitutional principle guaranteeing this absolute right to dissent has a curious name: It is called “parliamentary sovereignty.” In Dicey’s words: one parliament cannot bind another.

A loss in the arena of constitutional law may be permanent; reform of constitutional law is difficult, requiring special rules and special majorities. Hence the acrimony of debates on constitutional reform; hence the bitterness. And because constitutional law is supposed to express our common views, the laws and standards about which all Canadians agree, dissent can look like sedition.

2 Responses to “Constitutional Reform: Let’s Not Go There”

  1. 1 Christopher Moore March 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Actually, Janet, only Bliss argued for a Canadian head of state. Fraser is passionate about the royals.

  2. 2 John March 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Christopher: You’re right. However, the bulk of Fraser’s editorial focused on the monarchy’s cultural connection, and very little of it had to do with the importance of the monarchy for the political executive. Bliss and Fraser disagreed over the importance of the monarchy, but they shared the same premise of where to look for the monarchy’s importance.

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