So one of the interesting questions that came out of my discussion last week about the binary nature of the political spectrum was whether we should consider having an elected head of state in Canada.
So let’s firs restrict this to the federal government rather than the provinces.
Second, I’m going to say right out that I like our parliamentary system and the current structure we have for our head of state (The Queen and her representative the Governor-General) and the head of government (The Prime Minister). I do not want to see a change.
I’m also going to come out with admitting that at least part of my motivation is to not adopt a similar system to the Americans. (Even if we were to someday adopt an elected head of state, I hope we could do it with a shorter campaign period and a more transparent election than the electoral college system. I dislike both those elements of the presidential elections.)
So the main objection to our current system is that our Prime Minster has a significant amount of power. Especially when the Prime Minister’s party holds a majority with the House of Commons. In such a situation, we may not have a sufficient separation of powers to prevent abuses of that power.
Another valid objection is that people want more diplomatic representation in the legislative and executive branches of the government. The assumption being that this will allow for a greater presentation of the will of the people within the government.
I would counter both objections. First lets look at what separation of powers we do have an how that compares with an alternative – the American Federal system.
So the Canadian government has the head of state and the head of government divided into two different folks. The Americans have that in a single person – the President. However, the leader of the house of representative is still separate from the president, while out head of government is the same as the leader of our lower house.
The legislative branch in both countries has three levels which must approve a law. The lower house (commons), the upper house (senate) and the head of state (Queen with Governor-General/President). But after that there are many differences. In the States, all three are elected bodies. In Canada only the lower house is elected. The senate is provided by appointment. The Queen is a reigning monarch and the Governor-General is her representative and decided by appointment as well.
In both custom and practice, the house of commons is the most powerful body in passing legislation. When a law is passed by that house of commons, it is never overruled by the senate and royal assent is a formality.
So, now I wave my magic wand and say our method has significant benefits. Rather than three bodies all populated through election, we use three different methods: election, appointment and a reigning monarch. We do allow the diplomatically election body drive legislation in accordance with diplomatic principles. However, if that body is ever out of control, we do have controls on legislation in the other two bodies.
So we have appropriate legislative controls and perhaps a benefit in having different selection mechanisms on each of the bodies. (Although, I would hazard that our senate appointment system could stand for some reform.)
So let’s look at some of the other duties in the executive branch:
1) Government Appointments – States – the president or his office. Canada – The Governor-General does many of the key appointments (Prime Minister and Senate, Supreme Court Justices, Privy Council and Chief-of-Defence Staff and Cabinet). The Governor-General does all appointments under advisement of Prime Minster normally (Premiers in the case of Lieutenant-Governors).
2) Foreign Appointments – These are sorta similar. The President and the Governor-General both recognize foreign ambassadors. The Governor-General accredits our own ambassadors. The President both appoints and accredits the American ambassadors. The President and Governor-General are both receive foreign heads of state.
3) Preparing the budget – The President does this. In Canada it is the Prime Minister.
4) Commander-in-Chief – The Head of State holds this position in both countries. In Canada, the Governor-General is mostly a ceremonial position. Declarations of war do require ratification by the monarch. Neither country can really do this without support of the lower house.
5) State-of-the-Union/Speech from the Throne – In both countries these are delivered by the Head of State. But the President prepares the State of the Union and thus sets Government direction. In Canada, the direction is set by the government and the Prime Minister’s office. The Speech is subject to debate and votes within the house.
6) Launch/Prorogue/Dissolve Parliament – These ideas are purely Canadian. The Governor-General is responsible for determining the head of Government, proroguing parliament and calling a new election. Normally, this follows fairly simply per the leader of the party with the most elected representatives. But in complicated situations it requires judgments – during minority governments, approving coalitions and what to do after a no-confidence vote in the house. And as we recently saw the decision to prorogue parliament can have fairly sweeping impacts/
7) Executive Branch – In Canada, the various ministries are headed by members of Cabinet, drawn from the privy council which is drawn from members of parliament normally in the party of the Prime Minister. In the States, the departments are determined through appointments. Pretty big difference.
8) Other Ceremonial Duties – Of which there are many. In recent years, the Governor-General has duties to promote the morale with Canada, serve as a representative of the country outside Canada, assign honours within the military and the order of Canada, promote the arts, etc.
Anyway – the list demonstrates that many of the various executive duties held by the president in the States are held by the Queen/Governor-General in Canada. However, there are also many significant differences and the head of government in Canada, the Prime Minister holds a significant amount of power.
Based on the list though, I submit that a sufficient separation of powers does exist in Canada. The argument towards the strength of the Prime Minister is not sufficient to move towards an elected head of state.
Additionally, my final argument is based on tradition. Tradition is always a two-edged blade. On one hand, traditions are rarely established without reason. On the other, the sometimes persist after those reasons have dissipated or proven inaccurate. As such – sigh there is a whole post on tradition buried in this declaration – traditions should be maintained, but reviewed with skepticism. If they are to be overturned, the base reasons for their establishment shout be proven invalid.
[Another Paragraph then to justify…] So that being the case, there isn’t sufficient grounds to overturn tradition in this case. (Excessive hand waving excused as no one has read this far into this screed. 🙂 )
In short, while an elected head of state is an interesting idea and attractive on the basic grounds of the tenets of democracy our existing system is a working setup and provides the necessary controls to prevent abuses.
(On Thursday the bill for new copyright legislation should drop in Parliament – Yay. That will provide another political element to discuss.)