In praise of new republics .. Iraq, Barbados, Australia, and Canada too?

Feb 18th, 2005 | By | Category: Canadian Republic

The recent Iraq election no doubt ought to give some form of guarded encouragement to almost everyone everywhere who believes in freedom and democracy, and all that.

But for those hardy citizens of Canada who would especially like to see their own country turned into a proper sovereign, independent, free and democratic republic at last, the early days of 2005 have brought both good and bad news from abroad – along with some almost surprising luck at home. (And then there’s Charles and Camilla … but who cares about them?)

The good news from abroad is that the Caribbean island state of Barbados will most likely be transforming itself from a so-called commonwealth realm into a parliamentary republic, before the end of this year. [CW editors’ update July 2009: some four and a half years later, alas, it still hasn’t happened quite yet.]

As matters stand Barbados, like Canada, still treats the Queen of the United Kingdom as its ultimate head of state. But, if Prime Minister Owen Arthur gets his way, his country will take a step already taken more than half a century ago by Ireland and India, and then by an increasing assortment of other former commonwealth realms. Barbados’s new head of state will be someone who actually lives on the island, and directly represents its democratic sovereign people.

The bad news from abroad is that the latest opinion polls from down under also show some slippage in popular support for the same kind of transformation in Australia (which has already held one not quite successful referendum on the issue, in 1999).

According to a late January 2005 poll published in The Australian newspaper, support for a republic in the land of Oz now stands at a mere 46 per cent, down five points over the last year. Opposition to a republic has increased from 32 to 35 per cent over the same period.

Meanwhile, as The Australian also explains, “Nearly one in five voters was uncommitted on the question of Australia’s becoming a republic, reinforcing a view that the issue had slipped off the public agenda.”

Our hard-learned approach to such things in the diverse far northern realm of Canada is inevitably much more gradualist, if necessary, but not necessarily, and so forth. Yet there is some increasingly promising evidence that the small-r republican picture here looks rather brighter than in Australia at the moment.

On December 29, 2004, the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa quietly announced that Canadian diplomatic credentials will no longer include direct references to Her Majesty the Queen – to “more accurately reflect the Governor General’s discharge of all of the functions of the Head of State in respect of Canada’s international relations, and to reflect Canada’s status as a fully independent nation.”

This of course falls considerably short of what Owen Arthur intends to do in Barbados. But it has already alarmed the Monarchist League of Canada. Logically enough, the League sees dropping the Queen’s name from diplomatic credentials as yet another step on the road to a Canadian republic, which will replace the constitutional monarchy with the sovereign people of Canada.

Controversy over the present Governor General’s spending habits in 2004 helped nudge Canada a little further in this direction. A committee of the last parliament in Ottawa proposed looking into the current method of having the Governor General appointed by the Prime Minister. If it ever did take place, action of this sort could eventually lead to a new and more suitable candidate for a republican head of state.

Towards the end of the past year, similar concerns about the Governor General’s spending prompted Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe to argue for just such a new republican head of state, in the not too distant fullness of time. And then even in Toronto eye weekly urged that it’s time for Canada to “get the whole constitutional ball rolling” again, with “something simple: how about we scrap the monarch and elect our head of state?”

More recently again, Barbara Yaffe has had another pro-republican column in the Vancouver Sun for February 17, 2005 – reprinted in the Ottawa Citizen the following day. It sets out the main thrust of a forthcoming book by Edward McWhinney, an eminent Canadian constitutional lawyer and former Liberal MP.

McWhinney’s argument is succinctly summarized in the title of this latest Barbara Yaffe piece: “Ditching royals is easy, expert says … When Queen ends her reign, Canada can just fail to proclaim Charles as the king.” And, as Ms. Yaffe goes on to explain, on the same constitutional scenario, the federal cabinet in Ottawa “could approve the people’s choice of head of state, should it be decided the best way to pick that person is by way of a popular vote.”

Nobody seriously envisioning such prospects in Canada right now imagines that anything is going to happen overnight. eye weeklys very prudent deadline for having all the details sorted around in its late 2004 editorial was “a really big party for our sesquicentennial in 2017.”

Most of the great many Canadians who support the idea of a new republic, if recurrent opinion polls since the middle of the 1990s can be believed, would also no doubt agree that it is hardly an urgent or very practically important burning question. On the surface of things at least, it is just all a lot of symbolism.

Yet here as elsewhere the recent election in Iraq does make you stop and think a little. Symbolism can sometimes be a powerful and even a useful thing. And Canada could certainly stand some constructive exercise in nation-building symbolism these days, however much longer it may take to finally put the sovereign democratic people at the head of the modern working Canadian constitution, where they are in fact and symbolically do belong.

* * * * * *

As Barbara Yaffe’s latest column also notes, for more information on the cause small-r republican sympathizers in Canada can contact the “three-year-old group … Citizens for a Canadian Republic,” which “favours an elected Canadian head of state.”

Yet another intriguing article on the republican issue in Canada appeared in the February 18, 2005 edition of Hindustan This piece, by Gurmukh Singh, casts light as well on how the current Canadian anglophone cultural mainstream at large looks to recent arrivals from the present-day Commonwealth’s first parliamentary republic in India.

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