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Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall visit Canada House in London on May 12.HANNAH MCKAY/The Associated Press

Peter H. Russell is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto.

The recent visit of Prince Charles and Camilla, and this year’s Platinum Jubilee, has once again made monarchy an item in Canada’s political conversation. Pollsters tell us about the unpopularity of Charles and the continuation of monarchy in Canada, and columnists remind us that to change Canada from a monarchy to a republic would require a Constitutional amendment supported by the federal Parliament and the legislatures of all 10 provinces. Though I disagree with those who push for Canada to become a republic, I would like the continuation of monarchy in Canada to rest on an appreciation of monarchy’s merits rather than the difficulty of the process required to get rid of it.

We are fortunate that monarchy continues in Canada because of its big benefit for parliamentary democracies. Most of the republics in the world are parliamentary. One that is obviously not is our next-door neighbour, the United States of America. It is a presidential/congressional democracy in which the president who is the head of government is elected in a separate election from the election of legislators who make the laws. The key difference between the presidential/congressional system and parliamentary systems is that in the former there is only one person at the top – the president who is both head of government and head of state, whereas in parliamentary systems there is duality at the top – the head of state is a different person than the head of government.

Only the United States has been able to sustain the presidential/congressional system for any significant period of time. Presidents tend to lose patience with the check and balance of separately elected lawmakers, and stage coups that tame or kill Congress. Most parliamentary democracies are republics, in which the presidential head of state is either elected directly by the people or indirectly by Parliament. Monarchical parliamentary countries such as Canada are the exception not the rule, but they are exceptionally stable compared with republican parliamentary countries.

Of the world’s 43 monarchies, only a handful are parliamentary democracies. Canada is one of a small group of nation-states that are both monarchical and parliamentary. That group includes Australia, Canada, Luxemberg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Tonga and Britain. In these countries, the monarch is head of state while a prime minister is the head of government. In all of them government is led by politicians who command the confidence of the elected chamber of parliament. If the state is a federation, as Canada is, this arrangement is duplicated at the provincial level.

In monarchical parliamentary countries, the head of state’s role is mostly symbolic and ceremonial. That is certainly true for Canada. The Queen and her representatives at the federal and provincial levels rubber-stamp decisions made by the prime minister and Parliament. However, the monarch and her representatives have retained a small residue of powers they may exercise on their own discretion. The most important of these discretionary powers have to do with ensuring that the government of the day commands the confidence of the elected chamber of Parliament. For example, if a minority government asks the Crown’s representative to dissolve Parliament and call an election a year or two after the last election, the governor-general or lieutenant-governor should not accede to such a request until she has ascertained that no other party leader is interested in forming a minority government with the support of other parties and has a plausible chance of being successful in doing this.

Now compare the position of a republican head of state and a monarchical head of state in such a situation. The republican president has been elected either directly or indirectly by Parliament. In either case, to win election the president had to have some partisan party support. There is no other way of winning elections. And that partisan support may well reduce the legitimacy of the president’s decision if he or she has to make the kind of judgment call involved in responding to a prime minister’s request for a snap election.

This difference between the position of a monarchical head of state and a republican head of state in these situations is not absolute. Some republican presidents of parliamentary states have handled such situations quite successfully. The Republic of Ireland’s Mary Robinson comes readily to mind. But the odds favour monarchical heads of state, without any partisan associations, being successful more often.

Let’s continue the benefits of monarchy until our head of state misbehaves. If that occurs, I am confident our federal parliamentary democracy is strong enough to make the necessary change.

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