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Lack of enthusiasm
Feb 20, 2009

According to an Ontario premier: “The Senate has lost the confidence of the people. It has ceased to be a useful legislative body and has become an obstruction.”

The premier was A.S. Hardy and he made his comments about the need to reform the Senate 110 years ago. 

At the time, La Patrie, a Quebec French-language newspaper, said: “There is no doubt that the reform of the Senate will occupy a foremost place in debate. We believe a large majority of the Canadian people are in favour of such reform of our Upper Chamber, as will secure the proper working of, our responsible institutions.”

Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier felt thwarted by the Conservative majority in the Senate, and gave notice in the House of Commons “that a humble address be presented to Her Majesty the Queen (Victoria) setting forth that the provisions of the British North America Act of 1867 respecting the power of the Senate in making laws, are unsatisfactory and should be brought more into harmony with the principle of popular government ...”

It is surprising how little has changed since Hardy’s pronouncement.

One hundred and ten years later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper felt as stymied as Laurier and used his powers to appoint new senators in an attempt to thwart the perceived threat poised by the Liberal majority in the Upper Chamber. But while Laurier had a majority in the House, Harper leads a minority government. 

Laurier’s proposed reform involved joint sittings of the House and Senate after a bill was rejected by the Senate. Laurier knew his majority in the House combined with Liberal members in the Senate would ensure passage of contentious legislation.

Harper believed he had no option but to appoint 18 new Senators — despite a promise to only install elected Senators in the Upper Chamber — to offset a potential impediment to legislation passed by the Conservative government. 

Even with the 18 new Conservative senators, the 105-seat Senate maintains its Liberal majority. In the Senate, there are 59 Liberals, 38 Conservatives, three Progressive Conservatives, one NDP and four independents. It could take a few more years of Conservative rule before a Tory majority could be realized in the Senate.

Perhaps Harper is a reverse advocate of the philosophy expressed by Laurier, who said: “When I come to the moment of selecting (for a vacant senate seat), if I have to settle between a Tory and a Liberal, I feel I can serve the country better by appointing a Liberal than a Conservative, and I am very much afraid any man who occupies the position I occupy today will feel the same.”

Apparently Brian Mulroney felt the same. In order to push through the GST in the late fall of 1990, he approached the Queen, saying that “extraordinary circumstances” made it essential that her permission (needed under the Canadian Constitution) was needed to appoint 13 new Senators (not replacements for retirees) to get around what Mulroney called “the obstructionism of a group of unelected Liberal senators.” Permission was granted by Queen Elizabeth and the  GST legislation was passed by the Senate. 

In the meantime, Senate reform hearings in Manitoba have attracted little of the enthusiasm mentioned 110 years ago in La Patrie. Today, reform has not occupied “a foremost place in debate.” During the Manitoba hearings, one person showed up in Flin Flon and one in Carmen. In Winnipeg, only 14 people have registered to debate the topic.

A Canadian Press report said Manitoba Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureaux, called the lack of participation “discouraging.”

There have been some changes in the Senate over the years. For one, senators were at first appointed for life, but that was changed to an enforced retirement at age 75. But the Senate, termed by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, as the chamber of “sober second thought” against the vagaries of an elected government, maintains many rights that in other nations are reserved for elected bodies.

Laurier's proposed reform of joint sittings to resolve contentious legislation also went to hearings at the provincial level but nothing was resolved — Senate reform remained elusive to Laurier throughout his long tenure as prime minister. 

In reply to making the Senate an elected chamber, a frustrated Laurier asked, “By whom should it be elected?” What he found was that no one could agree on how the Senate should be reformed.

Robert Borden, the Conservative opposition leader and later a prime minister, complained that after 10 years of Liberal rule, Laurier only mentioned reform when the Senate “threw out” a bill. Borden said it was Laurier’s preferred position to “abolish” the Senate. 

Abolishing the Senate is a position taken today by the NDP, as expressed by federal party Leader Jack Layton and Manitoba Premier Gary Doer.

In 1899, Laurier found that Senators were loathe to have the chamber reformed. “Would the safeguard (Macdonald’s ‘sober second thought’) which the Senate undoubtedly affords retain its efficiency were it dealt with in the way proposed by Sir Wilfrid Laurier?” asked Senator Sir William Hingston. “I think not.”

Undoubtedly, the Liberal majority in today’s Senate would be just as steadfast in opposing any reforms proposed by Harper, which include elections and term limits.

Actually, term limits may be an easier sell and have the potential to be passed solely by the House, since the precedent was set in 1965 when the House unilaterally imposed a retirement age of 75.

Any major reform of the Senate requires an amendment to the Canadian Constitution at which time approval is needed from seven provinces representing 50 per cent of Canada’s population — virtually an impossible task. 

The lack of enthusiasm for Senate reform hearings may reflect the lack of action achieved during so many similar debates over the years.

The lack of enthusiasm could also be the distraction during uncertain economic times. 

But more likely it is the warning Laurier issued over 100 years ago “that so long as the appointing is ... in the hands practically of the First Minister (prime minister), I am afraid we stand little chance of reform.”