Scottish referendum and Canada’s constitution

Scots voted last week to remain in the United Kingdom, but even the fact that they voted on whether to leave has opened the Pandora’s Box

Scots voted last week to remain in the United Kingdom, but even the fact that they voted on whether to leave has opened the Pandora’s Box in a way that things will never be the same again for any of the constituents of the union, or for Europe or for the world.

First, in the UK, there will be a lot of horse-trading as to how the powers of the central government will be devolved if the British government keeps its promise to enhance the self-governing authority for Scotland, then the Welsh and Northern Ireland and England will all seek enhanced autonomy.

In Europe, Catalans are already in the process of organizing a referendum to secede from Spain and in the pipeline are secessionist moves in Italy and Romania and who knows where else.

As for the Commonwealth, in Australia, where a 1999 referendum rejected the proposal for the country to cut its ties to Queen Elizabeth II and become a republic, an online poll immediately after the Scottish vote last week showed a 74 percent support in favor of declaring the country a republic.

When we will have a similar debate in Canada is hard to predict, but one can probably say with certainty that one day in the future that very discussion will be on the agenda in this country, too.

But before that day comes, looks like we still have some issues relating to Canada’s status as a constitutional monarchy; literally: The entanglement that needs to be unraveled involves Canada’s current constitution and its links to the United Kingdom and its administrative power over this country.

A debate is slowly developing on the state of health of our constitution and how to make it more responsive to changing times. (For those interested, there are a few informative and authoritative articles available on the website.)

Scholars and constitutional law experts underline several serious shortcomings of the current constitution, which can be summarized as follows:

– Quebec has not signed the current constitution, therefore the power of the document as the basis of legitimacy in the whole country is open to question;

– The current constitution does not secure property rights;

– The constitutional authority lies largely with the judiciary rather than the legislative power of the state, therefore the constitutional decision making process lacks accountability;

– Nobody knows how to amend the current constitution.

The last of these points appears to be one of the most problematic areas because when the government of Pierre Trudeau asked the House of Commons in London in 1982 to adopt the amendments to the Canadian constitution, lawmakers at Westminster adopted it as a kind of annex to a British piece of legislation and in doing that, they renounced the right to amend it further.

So, as a result, when there is public demand for Senate reform after the revelations of spending scandals, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can hide behind the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada to drag his feet not to implement his promise he made to the electorate before he became the head of the federal government back in 2006, because constitution does not have a provision as to how to reform the Senate.

Or, because there is no constitutional clarity on the process, Mr. Harper uses his power to send Canadian military personnel to northern Iraq to get involved in military action against Islamic extremists without even informing the legislature.

Of course, this discussion might be perceived as irrelevant by many, because Canada is a civilized country and people feel themselves safe and secure with the knowledge (assumption?) that the institutions are (mostly) functioning properly and as such, their rights are protected.

But as citizens, and not subjects, regardless of whether we live in small town Alberta or in metropolitan Toronto, we have an obligation to know how we are governed, at all levels, and it is only by knowing that we can hold politicians to account as and when required.