Reforming Royal Assent Procedures
Sharon Carstairs, and others, Canadian Parliamentary Review
When a Bill has been adopted by the House of Commons and the Senate it receives Royal Assent in a ceremony conducted in the Senate chamber. Dissatisfaction with the current process of granting Royal Assent has been smouldering for nearly twenty years. Attendance at the formal ceremony is sparse and the timing is often inconvenient for parliamentarians, the Governor General and Justices of the Supreme Court. Since 1983 a number of motions, reports and Bills have proposed changes. Senator John Lynch Staunton, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate introduced several bills which generated debate but all of them died on the order paper. His latest Bill, introduced at the start of the present Parliament, once again proposed to reform the Royal Assent ceremony. Following discussion with the Government an agreement was reached whereby Senator Lynch Staunton's Bill would be withdrawn and a Government Bill with a similar objective, S-34 the Royal Assent Act, was introduced in the Senate on October 2, 2001. It was supported by the Leader of the Government in the Senate and referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament. The following article is based on testimony in that committee on October 17, and November 7, 2001. For the full transcript of proceedings see http://www.parl.gc.ca/.
Senator Sharon Carstairs (Leader of the Government): On October 4, I advised the Senate that the Governor General had given her consent to our consideration of this bill. The Canadian government does not believe that Bill S-34 will have any repercussions on the royal prerogative or interest. The provisions of the bill are procedural in nature and will not change Royal Assent as such in any way.
The Bill stipulates that Royal Assent granted by the Governor General to a bill passed by the Senate and House could be signified either with a Royal Assent ceremony in the Senate chamber or by a written declaration, but Royal Assent would take place during a parliamentary session in which both houses passed the bill.
The first appropriation bill presented for assent in any session would require the formal customary ceremony, given the important and symbolic nature of supply bills.
In clause 3 there is a provision for a declaration of Royal Assent in the traditional way that would take place on at least one occasion in each calendar year. (See Editor's note).
Each House of Parliament shall be notified of a written declaration of Royal Assent by its respective Speaker or person acting as Speaker. When Royal Assent is given by means of a written declaration the act is deemed to be assented on the day on which the two houses have been notified of the declaration.
A written declaration of Royal Assent would not be a statutory instrument within the meaning of the Statutory Instruments Act. The definition of statutory instruments is intentionally broad. Anything that falls within it is subject to parliamentary review. Royal Assent in the form of a written declaration is not obviously intended to be subject to such a review.
Finally, the Bill provides that no Royal Assent is invalid simply because clause 3 has not been complied with. This provision responds to concerns about the validity of any bills or Royal Assent declared during a year in which for some reason no ceremony was held. For example, if there was a prorogation prior to any Royal Assent ceremony happening and then Parliament was not recalled during that period of time, it would question the validity of the legislation.
Senator Jerahmiel Grafstein: I have not been in favour of streamlining Royal Assent because of a very serious problem that I think inflicts the Senate, and that is its invisibility, its lack of credibility, its lack of public legitimacy and its lack of self-esteem. Whatever symbolic steps one can take to correct this deficit, are, to my mind, important. I think that we suffer from this deficit among ourselves in terms of our responsibilities as senators, but we are collaborators with the executive and with the Commons who wish that the Senate would disappear. …