We think we know it. We take it for granted. However, the influence of US politics and the creeping erosion of our parliamentary system leads me to believe that we need a refresher course.
Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy. Canada is a Westminster Parliamentary democracy. The Governor General represents the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who is our head of state. The fact that each session of Parliament opens with a Speech from the Throne, prepared by those in majority in the House of Commons, represents the underscoring of the fundamental principles of legitimate governance, going back to 1215 and Magna Carta. Government is only legitimate by consent of the governed.
The Senate is essentially the Canadian version of the House of Lords, the purview of monarchy. On the day of a Speech from the Throne, the process begins with the Governor General asking the Senate’s Usher of the Black Rod to summon the commoners – as MPs are. What appear to be quaint rituals are actually significant. The slamming of the Commons door in the face of the visiting royal representative is more than a peculiar anachronism. It is the on-going recognition of the fundamental principle of the supremacy of Parliament. Our traditions, observed more often as bizarre rituals of dwindling consequence, are actually important.
They express the reality that our living, breathing democracy shares the air of those fields at Runnymede in 1215 when the king had to accept that even a king cannot ignore the people. Magna Carta came from that commitment – a king must consult the commoners. And that is why, lined up behind that small barrier at the doors of the chamber, stand the commoners – the legitimate representatives of the people of Canada – the House of Commons. Members of Parliament, commoners all – equal in theory – represent the people of Canada.
It is important that the roles be respected. Democracy in the 21st Century hangs in a vulnerable place – between corporate rule, totalitarianism and hyper-partisan manipulation. If a Prime Minister sits with royalty in ceremony, it won’t be long before conventions are violated. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decisions to shut down the House, prorogation of Parliament, in 2008 and 2009, were essentially unconstitutional. If we are to preserve a real democracy, we need to remember that our somewhat colourful customs are symbolic reminders of fundamental principles:
- To be legitimate, government must exist by consent of the governed;
- Parliament is supreme;
- The Prime Minister reports to Parliament and not the other way around.