Right-Wing Monarchists and Left-Wing Republicans: The Inevitable Partisan Politicization of the Crown in Canada?


Constitutional monarchies benefit from the separation between the Head of State and Head of Government: under responsible government, (what Paul Benoit considers “the doctrine of royal infallibility”[1]) Ministers of the Crown are responsible for acts of the Crown and responsible before the House because the Queen or Governor General acts only on and in accordance with their advice, except in exceptional circumstances.[2] The doctrine of royal infallibility allows the Queen or Governor General to become neutral political figures. Responsible government institutionalizes and legitimates loyal opposition, and therefore political dissent[3], because the Prime Minister and cabinet take responsibility for acts of the Crown; they, rather than the Queen, thus bear the brunt of all political attacks. The dignified part of the Crown (the Queen and/or the Governor General) must remain above politics and act as the neutral arbiter and the ultimate guarantor of the constitution. The dignified Crown therefore cannot logically advocate for itself; the efficient part of the Crown (the prime minister and cabinet) must defend it and uphold its role in our system.[4] The long-term vitality of the Crown and its political-partisan neutrality depends upon broad support and understanding of its function: it should not become a political wedge of one party but remain the guarantor of parliamentary government and liberty for all Canadians. Ideally, as I’ve argued in posts on “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” and “Parliamentary Oaths of Allegiance in the Westminster System”, both Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition should uphold their duty and protect the dignified part of the Crown and preserved its primal role in our system. However, this arrangement seems to be breaking down in Australia and New Zealand – and Canada may soon follow.

The Monarchist Right versus The Republican Left in Australia and New Zealand: Is Canada Next?

Unfortunately, this necessary separation between the dignified and efficient parts of the Crown can develop into significant partisan rifts that politicize the Crown by proxy. Currently, in Australia and New Zealand, the main right-wing parties ardently defend the constitutional monarchy, while their main left-wing parties support republicanism. Former Australian Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating (1991-1996) and current Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard have both publicly acknowledged support for republicanism during their respective premierships. Former Australian Liberal Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007) and the current leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, Tony Abbot, are staunch monarchists. John Key, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand and leader of the National Party, the largest center-right party there, is also a staunch monarchist and supports keeping the current flag of New Zealand. In contrast, the new leader of the Labour Party of New Zealand, David Shearer, has publicly acknowledged his republicanism and opposition to the flag of New Zealand. The entrenchment of a “monarchist party” and a “republican party” threatens the vitality of responsible government and loyal opposition and may even create untenable political deadlock through an all-consuming question of the country’s constitutional arrangements.

The New Democratic Party’s Republicanism

Over the last two years, similar rifts have opened up in Canada. They probably already existed, but the Harper government’s recent restorations of the public roles of the Queen and Governor General (which I support) have exposed this old fault line, which in turn is becoming a partisan wedge. The political parties in Canada are starting to mimic this Australasian pattern: under the Harper government, the Conservative Party has become staunchly monarchist, and after the tragic death of Jack Layton, the New Democrats have begun tentatively experimenting with republicanism (though it remains to be seen whether the New Democrats will seriously pursue the issue). The Harper government recently restored the Royal prefix to the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force, ordered that all embassies and consulates display portraits of the Queen of Canada, and has invited members of the Royal Family to tour the country. The outspoken New Democratic MP Pat Martin has called for the abolition of the Crown of Canada upon the demise of Queen Elizabeth II, declaring that “It’s time for us to get rid of the monarchy and grow up.” Thomas Mulcair, a candidate for the leadership of the New Democratic Party from Quebec, shares the sentiment. Certain elements within the derelict Liberal Party has also started aimlessly drifting toward republicanism as well, though any weak political party remains susceptible to being hijacked by a special interest group (like the defunct Progressive Conservative Party in the 1990s).

Nathan Cullen, MP and candidate for the leadership of the New Democratic Party, suggested holding a referendum on whether Canada should abolish the Crown and become a republic, like Australia did in 1999. Under the guise of “Improving Our Democracy”, Cullen would pledge himself to:

Hold a plebiscite on the future of the monarchy in conjunction with a referendum on voting reform.  This would be the first time citizens have been asked about whether the monarchy plays a valuable role in 21st Century Canada.  It’s hoped the results would guide Parliament and legislatures on Constitutional changes, should Canadians indicate a desire for change.[5]  

Cullen’s analysis misses the point completely, of course: whether Canadians see the role of the Crown or not, it certainly “plays a vital role in 21st century Canada”. In reality, Cullen needs to reformulate his question as to whether the Crown should continue to fulfill its constitutional functions or whether it should be abolished, acknowledging that the abolition of the Crown means the abolition of the constitution. All sovereign authority rests with the Crown of Canada; therefore, the Crown cannot be abolished through a constitutional amendment, but only through: the establishment of an entirely new constitution – nothing short of revolution and regime change.

The Civic Republicanism and Romanticism of the Young Liberals of Canada

The Liberal Party might also gravitate toward republicanism. The Young Liberals of Canada submitted a resolution to their party’s upcoming convention, “Canadian Identity in the 21st Century,” that calls for the abolition of the Crown of Canada and the establishment of a Canadian (presumably federal) republic in which the Head of State would be popularly elected (presumably directly, like the French president). I will deconstruct this resolution and then infuse my analysis with Professor Ajzenstat’s work on “civic humanism/republicanism” vs “liberal constitutionalism” from Canada‘s Origins: Liberal, Tory, or Republican?.

At first, I was at a loss to explain the ideological source of the fundamental disagreements between republicans and constitutional monarchists. Then, at the behest of a colleague, I re-read one of Ajzenstat’s older pieces and intend to read The Once and Future Canadian Democracy soon. I consider myself a Whig and support constitutional monarchy because this system of government best secures liberty – the classic argument of a liberal constitutionalist. I better understand the republican philosophy behind this resolution after re-reading the introduction of Canada’s Origins and the distinction between liberal constitutionalism and civic republicanism. Ajzenstat and Smith define liberal constituitonalism as inherently Lockean, though I also consider it Burkean. The liberal constituitonalist seeks above all a system of government that secures liberty and therefore supports responsible government, pluralism, constitutional monarchy, and the mixed constitution of the Crown-in-Parliament; they fear most of all the degeneration of the government into tyranny of the majority.[6] In contrast, civic republicanism emanates from the counter-Enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau[7] and emphasizes “a sense of the common good and an idea of civic virtue to which all members of the polity adhere.”[8] The latter clause that I highlighted shows that civic republicanism can easily preclude liberal pluralism, which accommodates political dissent. Parenthetically, the most severe accusation that one American can level against another – “You’re un-American” – probably also derives from civic republicanism: any American who somehow contradicts republican virtue is not American at all. Moreover, virtue refers primarily to citizenship and “necessitated certain moral qualities, for example, the ability to act selflessly for the public good.”[9] But how does one define the public good? Tyrants and despots can rationalize dictatorship under the guise of the public good.

This presumption of virtue often manifests itself in the argument that becoming a republican represents the natural culmination and political finality of Canada’s development. Republicans rely on this facile and circular argument on the inevitability of becoming a republic, which they see as the natural culmination in a gradual process of independence. C.P. Champion refers to this process as republican “teleology”.[i] Neo-nationalist republicans, thoroughly steeped in French Revolutionary, counter-Enlightenment romanticism, seek to force Canadians to be free from what they consider reactionary, nostalgic British colonialism.[ii]

But why is Canada’s political finality a republic and not a constitutional monarchy? Most republicans fail to answer this question. Canada should therefore become a republic because, from their point of view, only this form of government secures “democracy” (which also often remains undefined and unexplained). This romantic, counter-enlightenment obsession with “democracy” (whatever that means) often takes the form of poorly explained normative statements based on identity politics, circular logic that portrays constitutional monarchy as inherently bad and a republic as inherently good, ignores the liberal, rational underpinning of constitutional monarchy, and glosses over the question as to which form of government best secures liberty.

The Young Liberals of Canada managed to capture most of these counter-enlightenment, romantic republican sentiments into one resolution:

WHEREAS Canada is a multicultural nation, built by people from many diverse backgrounds and where at present no Canadian citizen can ever aspire to be head of state of our own country;
WHEREAS Canadians believe in earning one’s position in life and not being simply born into privilege;
WHEREAS our head of state should be a true representative of the People of Canada;
WHEREAS Canada prides itself in being a democratic nation, with democratic institutions;
WHEREAS foreign law bars individuals not of the Anglican faith from rising to the position of head of state of Canada;
WHEREAS Canada’s head of state should conform to Canadian laws of gender and religious equality represented in the Charter of Rights and Freedom;
WHEREAS Canadians pay more to maintain the monarchy than the British;
WHEREAS an unelected individual can and is prepared to supersede the will of the Parliament;
BE IT RESLOVED that the Liberal Party of Canada, urge the Parliament of Canada to form an all party committee to study the implementation of instituting a Canadian head of state popularly elected and sever formal ties with the British Crown.[10]

This resolution contains several factual errors and numerous flawed conceptions. However, I am pleased that the Young Liberals accept the Queen of Canada as the Head of State instead of conferring that title on the Governor General. I agree with this conclusion but will point out where the Young Liberals use it in order to mask other facts about our institutions. I will explore this issue in more detail in a subsequent post, but, contrary to the wording of the resolution, Canada severed ties with the “British Crown” in 1931 when the Statute of Westminster established the Crown of Canada as a legal entity separate from the original British Crown.

The first preambular clause puts forward the omnipresent zoological, superficial argument that forms the implicit basis of all republican identity politics: that because of our system’s British origins and because the Crown of Canada is vested in Queen Elizabeth II,  only Canadians whose ancestors came from the British Isles should support the Crown of Canada because it only “represents” (whatever that means) them, to the exclusion of Canadians of all other national or ethnic backgrounds. I find the third preambular clause difficult to refute precisely because of the implied normative argument and the sheer ambiguity and contained in the phrase “true representative of the people of Canada”; I can therefore only infer the authors’ intent based on my past experience with republican writings. Probably, this statement draws from that superficial, pseudo-intellectual movement for the half-educated known as identity politics; in this case, the Queen only “represents” (whatever that means) Canadians of British descent. I consider identity politics the epitome of superficiality because it reduces human beings to their most base and crude biological characteristics – sex, ethnicity, skin pigmentation, etc. – and asserts that these collectivist factors form the basis of each individual’s political interest; this pernicious ideology therefore dismisses the influence of substantive influences of political thought and that ideas matter more than biology in politics. In fact, identity politics also tends to downplay individual ideational decision-making in favour of collectivization based on crude biological categorization. You’re a woman? Then you must be a feminist. You’re not English? Then you have no business supporting constitutional monarchy in Canada because the Queen doesn’t “represent” you. Interestingly, republican identity politics cannot account for the converse: republicans of British descent. In the cruel world of identity politics, “representation” refers exclusively to this crude biological determinism and leaves no room for the representation of differences in political thought and ideas.

In response to the second point, I must question and dispute the intrinsic value that the republican Young Liberals attach to “aspiring to become the head of state.” Practically speaking, it is irrelevant that a Canadian cannot become the King or Queen of Canada because the King or Queen of Canada acts only upon and in accordance with the advice Prime Minister, as head of government, and the other responsible Ministers of the Crown; and because the latest Letters Patent, 1947 delegate almost all the powers of the King or Queen of Canada to the Governor General of Canada, the Prime Minister rarely advises the King or Queen directly and normally only advises on the appointment of the Governor General. Since 1952, all Governors General have been Canadian citizens, and the Prime Minister who actually formulates policy is Canadian. The wording of this preambular clause therefore precludes any debate (even from the flawed perspective of identity politics) on the “representativeness” of the Governor General of Canada. The second phrase perfectly captures that republican notion of virtue, something to the effect that: “Constitutional monarchy is an illegitimate form of government because members of the Royal Family are born into privilege”. This simplistic mentality and single-minded focus on republican virtue neatly precludes the possibility of discussing the merits of constitutional monarchy and the Crown-in-Parliament as the most effective guarantors of liberty. But why engage in such discussions? Constitutional monarchy inherently lacks virtue – so what more could we possibly debate? A form of government should not exist in order to ensure that every citizen could potentially become the Head of State – particularly not when the Head of Government formulates policy and controls the political power. And it also glosses over the role of the Governor General of Canada, who carries out virtually all of the Sovereign’s powers and authorities. I would argue, from my classical liberal standpoint, that the State exists above all in order to secure our liberties. Therefore, republicans must first demonstrate how a constitutional monarchy threatens liberty and why a republic offers superior protection. They remain content to maintain that constitutional monarchy should be abolished because not everyone can become the King or Queen of Canada.

I can only counter the symbolic civic republicanism with an account of how our institutions work in reality, so I will never succeed in convincing the most enthusiastic republicans of their rectitude because they focus solely on normative propositions, their interpretation of civic virtue, and “democracy” – which they rarely define, though the fourth preambular clause implies that that Canada must become a republic in order to become democratic. But our democracy emanates from and is inextricably linked to our main democratic institution, the Crown-in-Parliament, the three parts of Parliament: the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Queen. The Young Liberals’ statement implies, falsely, that Canada would not become democratic (whatever they mean by that) until after the abolition of the Crown. I would add that Canada should also pride itself, in addition to being democratic, on being liberal (in the classical sense of that word) and pluralist.

Luke Bradley, a Young Liberal from Carleton University who spearheaded this resolution, appears in the video below. He prefaced his arguments against the Crown of Canada (which he erroneously labels the Crown of the United Kingdom throughout) with the rather absurd claim that “[he] is not trying to take an extreme stance against the monarchy, and calling for a new republic or something like that. I’m trying to open a discussion between a whole bunch of different Canadians.”

He then argued that we abolish the Office of Governor General (and presumably also the Office of Queen) and allocate their funding to feeding school children breakfast (even though education is a provincial jurisdiction); he seemed oblivious to his own resolution, which calls for the abolition of the Crown and the replacement with the Offices of Queen and Governor General with another all-Canadian head of state who would also cost money, and probably more money than the current system. This nonsensical double-speak (“Abolish the Crown of Canada — but we aren’t calling for a republic!”) showcases the mendacity of the republican movement in Canada, or perhaps merely the vacuous rhetoric that passes for profound discourse in the Liberal Party of Canada.

Then again, he identifies himself as an actor on his Twitter page, so perhaps his performance in that interview was indeed just an act.


Richard Carthwright, one of our Fathers of Confederation, summarized these distinctions succinctly: “I prefer British liberty to American equality.” I support the Harper government on these issues of reversing decades of republicanism by stealth and restoring royal symbols, but we must ensure that these policies do not provoke a strong backlash such that the New Democratic Party (or the Liberal Party) identifies with republicanism as an alternative to the monarchist Conservative Party. The long-term vitality of the Crown and its political-partisan neutrality depends upon broad support and understanding of its function: it should not become a political wedge of one party but remain the guarantor of parliamentary government and liberty for all Canadians. I conclude that left-right politicization of the Crown is not inevitable, even if our political system encourages the development of such tendencies. In order to combat politicization, constitutional monarchists would do well to portray themselves as “Friends of the Crown,”[11] who can range from classical liberals to social democrats – encompassing both the left and the right – and include persons of all ethnicities and national backgrounds. Friends of the Crown on the left in particular need to come forward in order to help preserve the political neutrality of the Crown, “the first principle in Canadian government”, and continue the social democratic tradition of men like Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles, Eugene Forsey, and Jack Layton.

Related Posts:

[1] Paul Benoit, “The Crown and the Constitution,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 25, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 2. http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=83&art=250 [2] James W.J. Bowden and Nicholas A. MacDonald, “The Officialization of Constitutional Convention in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law 6, no. 2 (2012): forthcoming.
Ajzenstat in several works explains that the Fathers of Confederation referred to political dissenters (in other words, the loyal opposition) as “minorities”, in contrast to modern political discourse in which “minority” normally derives from identity politics and refers to ethnic or religious groups in the demographic minority.
Nick MacDonald, conversation with author, 31 October 2011.
Nathan Cullen, “Improving Our Democracy,” (29 November 2011). http://www.nathancullen.ca/en/policies/improving-our-democracy [Accessed 29 December 2011].
Janet Ajzenstat and  Peter J. Smith, “Liberal-Republicanism: The Revisionist Picture of Canada’s Founding” in Canada’s Origins: Liberal, Tory, or Republican? edited by Janet Ajzenstat and Peter J. Smith (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995) : 1-16.
Ibid., 11.
Ibid., 8.
Peter J. Smith, “Civic Humanism vs Liberalism,” in Canada’s Origins: Liberal, Tory, or Republican? edited by Janet Ajzenstat and Peter J. Smith (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995): 111.
C.P. Champion, The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-1968 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010): 15.
The Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberal Biennial Convention : Ottawa 2012, January 13-15. “Resolution 114: Canadian Identity in the 21st Century.” http://convention.liberal.ca/priority-resolutions/114-canadian-identity-in-the-21st-century/ [Accessed 26 December 2011]. 
Michael Jackson COV SOM CD, “The Crown in Canada – A Re-awakening,” Canadian Monarchist News (Spring 2011): 23; Michael Jackson, “The New Zealand Monarchy,” Canadian Monarchist News (Spring 2011): 24-25; Jason Kenney PC MP, “Citizenship and the Crown,” Address to the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust, Toronto, Ontario, 31 October 2011.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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8 Responses to Right-Wing Monarchists and Left-Wing Republicans: The Inevitable Partisan Politicization of the Crown in Canada?

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  4. Nick says:

    I don’t think you’re quite right about “right wing monarchists and left wing republicans” in Australia … that probably used to be the case in the 1990s, but it has died down quite significantly since then. Polls show most Labor voters support keeping the monarchy, as do the Liberal voters. Only Greens voters (the far left) would vote for a republic. Even the Labor leadership has backed off from (seriously) advocating republicanism as they know not to touch the subject now (they would lose a lot of support among their working class rank and file voters). It is the voters who matter in Australia’s case anyway, not the parties, since any constitutional change has to be put to a referendum.


    • Nick,

      You make a good point on the referendum. The Australian constitution’s amending formula is much simpler, requiring a sort of “double majority” of a majority of citizens in a majority of the states to support an initiative (correct me if I’m wrong). In Canada, our constitution includes five amending formulas, none of which require a referendum, though the Referendum Act, 1992 allows for a non-binding referendum as a consultative mechanism.

      I didn’t say so explicitly in this post, but I consider even a rhetorical left-right divide on constitutional monarchy problematic because of the Oath of Allegiance. How can a republican who advocates for turning Australia into a republic possibly take the Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign in good faith? But if I have misjudged the support for republicanism among Labour and Liberal supporters, I stand corrected.



  5. drprunesquallor says:

    I think you give the young Libs too much credit for being political philosophers. I agree there is a political philosophy behind their proposals, whether they’re aware of it or not, but they’re probably motivated more by the need for a grand vision to revitalize the party.
    And I think that, ultimately, support for the Crown doesn’t correspond with the left-right spectrum. Of course, the Tories, and especially the current ones, are emphatically monarchist, and the Liberal Party for years followed a clandestine policy of undermining the institution. BUT, if you look at the membership of the two parties, you see a more varied picture. There was a rather surprising (and for me unsettling) poll one or two years ago, which showed that support for ditching the monarchy was higher among Conservative voters than it was Liberal, while opposition to ditching it was about the same (under 50%).
    I wasn’t too surprised. There is a certain type of old Ontario Liberal – his family has always been Liberal, but, whatever his politics are, he is an Anglophile Anglican, or sometimes Catholic, monarchist. On the other hand, a lot of “conservatives” nowadays, especially younger ones, are actually libertarian. Some libertarians are monarchist, but I think they’re more inclined to be on the republican bandwagon.


    • drprunesquallor says:

      correction: I said “if you look at the membership of the two parties, you see a broader picture…”
      I meant not just the membership but everyone who votes for and identifies with each party.


    • I agree that the Queen and the Governor General should and must above politics — I intended this column as a lament for the loss of the Crown’s neutrality, not an endorsement of the trend. Support for constitutional monarchy or a republic does not truly fall along the left-right spectrum. One can be a classical liberal and a constitutional monarchist, or a classical liberal and a republican; similarly, one can be a social democrat and either a constitutional monarchist or a republican.

      I’ve also encountered many Conservatives (particularly Westerners) who espouse republicanism. In fact, after having read parts of Manning’s autobiography recently, I find many examples that would suggest a latent sense of “civic humanism” or “romanticism” within the Reform Party. Whenever someone argues against a particular thing because “it’s not democratic” — as if that observation or affirmation somehow acts as evidence in and of itself — they are engaging in this civic republican, romantic tradition.

      And of course, I wrote this entry before the Liberals held their convention and voted down the measure by a 2:1 margin.


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