Heritage Minister James Moore unveiled Canada's legislation to agree to changes in the royal line of succession today, as part of a rare and unprecedented process for ensuring the crown is passed on according to the same rules in 16 countries.
Speaking to reporters, Moore touted the legislation, which ends the preference of males over females in the line of succession, as "straightforward," "simple but principled changes," and "a pretty common sense reform."
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson tabled bill C-53, entitled "An Act to assent to alterations in the law touching the Succession to the Throne," in the House of Commons near the start of Thursday's proceedings. He noted that Governor General David Johnston had been consulted on the bill and approved of its debate.
Despite earlier statements from Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he hoped the bill could be passed quickly, Nicholson did not seek unanimous consent to fast-track or bypass stages of debate on the bill, which is set to proceed through the House in the usual fashion.
The substance of the legislation was already known before its tabling.
Before Dec. 2, the Harper government provided its written agreement to pass changes consistent with those underway in the United Kingdom and the other 14 constitutional monarchies where Queen Elizabeth is the head of state.
Three changes to the ancient laws that govern the royal line of succession received unanimous agreement at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Perth, Australia, in October. 2011:
Males will no longer inherit the throne ahead of older, female siblings.
The monarch or a direct heir to the throne will no longer be banned from marrying a Roman Catholic.
Descendants of George II will no longer need to obtain the monarch's permission to marry or else have their marriage declared void.
The third change is thought to affect several hundred people, mostly in the U.K. It will be replaced with a new requirement for the monarch's consent for the marriages of only the first six people in line to the throne.
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All the countries need to amend the same centuries-old acts in the same way to avoid confusion. If they did not, different rules in different countries could see different monarchs across the Commonwealth some day, following the presumed reigns of Prince Charles and Prince William (currently first and second in line to the throne to succeed Queen Elizabeth.)
The potential that Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge could have a first-born girl as early as this July adds a spirit of urgency to the attempt to modernize the rules, but in fact all the countries have agreed that the changes would apply retroactively to the October 2011 agreement. All the countries will have a common coming into force date for the legislation.
"If the Duke or Duchess's first child is a girl, she will be heir to the throne and she will be able to marry someone of any faith," Moore told reporters.
Canada's legislation was drafted to give Canada's official approval for a bill that passed third reading in the British House of Commons on Monday.
Nicholson also tabled Thursday the text of the U.K. bill currently with the British House of Lords, for the reference of MPs. The text of the Canadian bill does not reproduce the exact wording of the U.K. bill, but merely paraphrases its key changes and gives assent.
The British bill was fast-tracked by Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government following its introduction in December, but may experience a delay as it moves to the upper house at Westminster.
Last week, the constitution committee in the British House of Lords issued a report expressing its dissatisfaction with the fast-tracking, saying the potential "unintended consequences" of the bill warranted more fulsome debate than it received during its quick journey through the House of Commons.
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In Canada, the bill set for introduction Thursday could pass without difficulty, thanks to the Conservative majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate. The official Opposition also has expressed early support for the reforms.
In a briefing for reporters, the government could not put a dollar figure on the cost of these changes.
While the substance of the bill may see broad support, the process being used by the Harper government to make the reforms is being questioned in some legal circles.
Each country implementing the changes must act in accordance with its own constitution. In some countries – and the Harper government indicated early on that this includes Canada – legislation is necessary to amend the rules for the Canadian Crown, which has been separate from the British Crown since the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
The preamble to that statute says that "any alteration in the law touching the succession to the throne ... shall hereafter require the assent as well of the parliaments of all the dominions [including the Dominion of Canada] as of the parliament of the United Kingdom."
The wording of this preamble is included verbatim in the Canadian legislation.
The legal position advanced by the federal government is that there is no Canadian law of succession to amend – rather, it is simply Canada's job to assent to the U.K. changes. In the Harper government's view, federal and provincial governments in Canada take the throne as they find it, in the absence of distinct Canadian rules for who may assume it.
But some scholars also point out that Canada's sovereignty was further enhanced by the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, which outlined detailed amending formulas for Canada's Constitution and repealed some parts of the Statute of Westminster.
The 1982 Constitution Act says that an amendment in relation to the office of "the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province" can be made only where authorized by "resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of each province."
Some argue that the three changes in this bill amount to an amendment in relation to the office of the Queen. But the Harper government says it has a legal opinion from its justice department that this bill is not a constitutional amendment because it does not affect the Queen's status, powers or rights in Canada.
The Harper government has not engaged the provinces in any kind of consultation or parallel legislative process to approve of these reforms and says it has no intention of doing so.
Canadian provinces have their own relationship with the Crown through the office of the lieutenant governor, who represents the Queen in each province and ultimately gives royal assent to the provincial legislation passed within the jurisdiction of each province.
Daniel Paillé, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, told reporters Thursday that his party wasn't sure if this legislation modified Canada's Constitution or not, because it had received conflicting legal advice.
"At least they have to consult provinces, and we wish and we want the Canadian government to consult the Quebec government about this," Paillé said, while indicating that his party's four MPs would still be voting in favour of the bill's provisions.
In Australia, a dispute between the federal government and the state of Queensland is slowing down efforts to approve the same three changes in a streamlined fashion. Queensland's premier said his state government does not object to the substance of the changes, but wants the process to respect the separate powers of the two jurisdictions.
Moore dismissed this example by saying that the legislative process is different in Canada "for a few reasons."
"The domestic politics in Australia is frankly different than that within Canada," Moore said, perhaps in reference to Australia's active republican movement.
"Our government signalled back in 2011 that we were planning to make these changes," Moore said. "We've heard no opposition from any of Canada's provinces... or any of the parties here in Parliament."
"They're free to speak. In over a year, none of them have spoken," Moore said.