January 13

Royal Assent 2

The refusal of Royal Assent in Luxembourg, as we have seen, was not because of a threat to the democratic system, or because the legislation was thought to be unconstitutional.  It was in furtherance of a moral principle flowing from Christian teaching as to the sanctity of human life. 

The development of constitutional monarchy on the mainland of Europe was strongly influenced by developments in Britain, but as with the Commonwealth Realms, they are not identical with Britain. After all there are significant differences in the constitutional monarchies of Australia, Britain  and Canada.

It would be a mistake not to be aware of developments in other countries. During the hearing  on the legislation for the 1999 referendum, I was stopped by one politican who had asked for examples concerning the removal of governors -general, from referring to Realms other than Australia. I recalled, but did not refer to the example of our Founding Fathers.   Had they not been open to considering developments elesewhere, we would not have had our Senate nor the referendum.

In Commonwealth countries, in Alberta, and as regards the dismissal of a government in New South Wales, the Crown has decided that legislation or executive acts were unconstitutional, a direction to which King George V was intially heading.

Apart from Luxembourg, there have been two other occasions in other constitutional monarchies in recent years when a monarch has objected to the grant of Royal Assent on similar moral grounds relating to Christian, and especially Catholic  teaching on the right to life.

(Questions relating to the observance of moral principles are beyond ACM’s remit, as indeed are the substance of the legislation which caused King George V and the Alberta Lieutenant-Governor such concern.) 

When Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein refused Royal Assent to a bill legalising abortion, he proposed a constitutional change to increase his powers, indicating that if these were not granted he and the Royal Family would leave. In the resulting referendum in 2003 the people overwhelmingly agreed with the Prince.

Belgium presented a different case in 1990 when a bill liberalising the law concerning abortion law was presented to King Baudouin, a deeply religious man. The King refused Royal Assent.

A compromise was found under the Constitution. The government declared him temporarily unable to reign. In accordance with the Constitution the ministers signed the bill, and on the next day declared that King Baudouin was capable of reigning again. Some commentators described this as an abdication for one day.

In a country divided between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, The King was seen as not so much a unifying force, but perhaps the unifying force.  He died unexpectedly in 1993 and was mourned deeply by both the Flemings and the Walloons. Before his brother Albert took the oath in Parliament, one deputy called for a republic but was ignored.

 Queen Elizabeth II by tradition only attends funerals of members of her immediate family, or statesmen of the standing of an incumbent prime minister. Her Majesty did attend King Baudouin’s, such was her great respect for him.

King George V had no doubt that had he exercised his prerogatives, the Crown would have been severely criticised, as was Sir John Kerr, and has been Grand Duke Henri.

The point is that the existence of this power, vague and undefined, and only exercised in the rarest of circumstances, like the power to remove a government, acts in itself as a check and balance on the exercise of political power.  No political leader can assume that he or she has absolute power.


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