My Encounter With Bob Rae @ Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy By Ashok Charles
The Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy sponsors an annual debate in cooperation with the Hart House Debate Committee at the University of Toronto. Having learned that the resolution of this year’s debate would be: “Support for democracy should be the foundation for Canadian foreign policy,” and that Bob Rae would be speaking afterwards, I decided to attend.
As it happened, I had started reading Bob Rae’s most recent book, Exporting Democracy, and had been impressed with the breadth of the political and historical context contained in the first section. As part of his historical overview, he sketches out the contrasting notions of Thomas Paine, who advocated an uncompromising expression of the theory of egalitarian democracy, and Edmund Burke, who proposed great caution when modifying established institutions.
The Hart House debate went off well, with two pairs of students making spirited, well-crafted arguments for and against the resolution. At one point, the Speaker of the House, pounded her fist to shut down the Leader of the Opposition when he went over his time limit.
A vote was taken in true parliamentary style, with audience members actually exiting the room through either of two doors, depending on how they viewed the resolution after having heard the arguments. I voted for the side that had supported the resolution but the vote was won, by about a fifteen per cent margin, by the opposition.
We’d been informed that Bob Rae’s flight from Ottawa was landing around the time the debate began and the organizers hadn’t been positive that he’d be at Hart House in time to give his speech on schedule but when I was out in the hall, after making my vote, there he was walking purposefully towards the Debates room.
In his speech, he went over the Paine-Burke dispute, seeming to favour Burke by stressing that we must always give priority to the on-the-ground consequences of our policies and interventions over adherence to an ideological agenda.
At the end of the talk, the first two questions concerned Canada’s role in Afghanistan and our position regarding the Iraqi situation; Rae reiterated his caution that the practical consequences of what we do must always be carefully considered.
Then, the Speaker of the House picked my up-stretched hand. I stood and said: “When we talk of ‘exporting democracy’, there’s an elephant in the room- or, maybe, I should say, a moose in the room- because, officially, we’re not a democracy; we’re a monarchy- a monarchy with a constitution.
Since a constitutional monarchy requires a monarchical constitution, our elected representative don’t have the opportunity to make a formal commitment to a democratic constitution- we simply don’t have one. If we did have a democratic constitution we would be a constitutional democracy.
What you, Mr. Rae, and your parliamentary colleagues do instead is swear an oath of true allegiance and faithfulness to a hereditary monarch. Every member of our armed forces swears the same oath. Presumably, when you are called upon to do so, you will all swear your allegiance and faithfulness to the monarch’s son.”
At this point, the professor who chairs the Debates Committee, and who had introduced Rae- with glowing commendations, of course- interrupted me. “The question. What’s the question?”
I’d timed my delivery beforehand and knew that the whole thing, preamble and all, came in at under two minutes; I told him the question was coming and pressed on.
“So, the envoys we dispatch and the military personnel we deploy in the interests of promoting democracy- sometimes in opposition to the interests of a hereditary dynasty- have, themselves, sworn to uphold a hereditary dynasty.
Now, I understand that its possible to say one thing and do another- but not without sending mixed messages.
My question is this: Would not Canadians be seen as- and would we not be- more credible and clear-headed champions of democracy if we ensured that our democratic principles were unambiguously and unabashedly expressed in our constitution and our office of head of state?”
I regret to inform you that Mr. Rae is not a republican. Instead of answering the question he dithered on about tradition and, pointlessly, mentioned that Sweden was also a constitutional monarchy. He muttered that when he swears the oath to the queen he’s actually swearing to Canada.
All in all, it was a very unsatisfying response. It left me with the sense that Mr. Rae, a highly capable individual, playing a key role in our government, is inexplicably unwilling to direct his powers of rational deliberation to the issue of Canada’s ongoing attachment to the British monarchy.