Our Canadian Republic: Do We Display Too Much Deference to Authority ... or Not Enough?

By Moore, Christopher | Literary Review of Canada, November 2008 | Go to article overview
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Our Canadian Republic: Do We Display Too Much Deference to Authority ... or Not Enough?

Moore, Christopher, Literary Review of Canada

WHEN I MET A GROUP OF Australian visitors to Canada recently, they observed that Canada has long flown its own distinctive national flag. Why then, they asked, has Canada not had a national debate on becoming a republic? Australia still uses one of those variants on the Union lack, but it held a referendum on the monarchy almost a decade ago. True, referendums being what they are, an abolitionist consensus managed to sustain the monarchy in every single Australian state, but still ...


I ventured the idea that Canada has been too preoccupied with substantial constitutional wrangles--separation, federalism, an entrenched bill of rights--to become very much engaged with the fate of Elizabeth II and her progeny. But I might instead have recommended to them a recent essay on the British constitution by the young British scholar Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at the University of Glasgow. Tomkins proudly declares himself a republican, but he advises British constitutional reformers not to pay much attention to the queen. The "narrow question of who should be the head of state" is just not that important.

The good health of our constitutional order, Tomkins insists, hardly depends on "the head of state issue" He thinks we should all be republicans by now, but he dismisses obsession with the monarchy as a "depressingly thin, diluted account of what the republican alternative has to offer." The task he recommends, the subject of his 2005 book-length essay Our Republican Constitution, is for Britons to pursue the real and serious issues posed by a republican analysis of parliamentary democracy. Monarchy may be the least of the problems.

Britons are republicans? Not, Tomkins hastens to say, George Bush Republicans. Nor IRA republicans. Nor even division-of-powers written-constitution republicans, or even anti-monarchists, necessarily. Tomkins takes us back to the Latin root. Britain's constitutional order, he declares, is a res publica, a public thing. Republicanism requires popular sovereignty, and popular sovereignty is achieved when the government is constantly accountable to a parliament representing the people, through which the people are able "to contest the doings of government," as Philip Pettit puts it. This is not just republican, according to Tomkins. "This is beautiful," and for two reasons: "because it is democratic" and "because it can actually work."

Tomkins celebrates the republican principle as expressed in British-style parliamentary democracy as "more suitable and more effective" at defending and implementing popular sovereignty than either the American or European versions of republicanism, and he attacks the fashionable view that we can rely on courts to restrain governments. He is, in other words, that rare species: a passionate advocate for the parliamentary system. He admits from the start that support for British-style parliamentary democracy is a minority view, now generally associated with complacent Victorian superiority. "We just do not seem to like our constitution very much any more," Tomkins writes. "In the past thirty years, the British constitution has taken a real beating"

The Canadian constitution has been taking a beating too. "There was a time when the Parliament at Westminster and its Dominion progeny were celebrated ... Today, Parliamentary government, in Canada and Great Britain, is scorned" is how David E. Smith, the distinguished Saskatchewan political scientist, begins The People's House of Commons, his Donner Prizewinning essay on the state of parliamentary government in Canada. Since Adam Tomkins has almost nothing to say about the Canadian parliamentary situation and David Smith has a great deal, let's look at Smith on parliamentary institutions in Canada before taking up the former's case that we already have in principle the best constitution in the world and need only apply proper republican values in order to make it fulfil its promise.

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Our Canadian Republic: Do We Display Too Much Deference to Authority ... or Not Enough?


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