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Not an easy task
Jan 22, 2010

When is a new initiative from the prime minister not really new? The answer is, when it involves Senate reform. The so-called new initiative of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is essentially old proposals made by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier over 100 years ago.

Similar to Harper and the Tories today, Laurier and the Grits ran on a campaign that proposed a massive overhaul of the Senate. The Laurier government’s reforms included terms limits, as well as the possibility of electing Senators. Some Liberals even considered the outright abolishment of the Senate — the opinion of today’s NDP, which is a continuation of long-standing labour tradition expressed on January 20, 1899, by the Winnipeg-based The Voice, a worker-oriented newspaper.

Ironically, the same arguments posed today by Harper are reflected in the earlier era, such as his call for the need to obtain a Conservative majority in the Red Chamber in order to avoid obstruction of  legislation passed in the House of Commons. “Someone is asking what the (Laurier) Liberal party is going to do in regard to Senate reform now that it has a majority in the house ...,” the Toronto Globe editorialized. “The Liberal party was convinced of the need for reform by experiencing the power of a hostile and tyrannous (Conservative) majority in the upper house.”

Anti-Laurier newspapers, such as the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor’Wester, opined that the need for reform arose only when there was a desire to have the Senate echo the policies of the government.

“I cannot see that the premier’s (prime minister’s) suggestion is at all practicable,” said Senator Drummond in 1899, when Senate reform was making its rounds. “The Liberal majority in the commons would of course swamp the senate, and would practically mean its abolition.”

Others, such as Senator Wood, said its history justified its continuation as the “chamber of sober second thought,” evoked by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Wood was opposed to any scheme involving the election of senators, claiming it would only embitter political feelings and divide the country into two great political camps. The election plan could maintain a single party’s majority in the Senate for longer than under the then existing system, he added.

As far as senators being named by provincial parliaments, he said there was no advantage as provincial politics would intrude upon federal politics.

Another plan proposed by Senator Parley called for making the process independent and non-partisan by asking the clerk of the Senate to notify the prime minister and opposition leader in the House, as well as the chief justice of the province when a vacancy occurred in a province. To make the process fair, the prime minister would appoint eight of his supporters in the Senate, the leader of the opposition six and the provincial chief justice three to vote on filling the vacancy. To bring the total to 20 ballots, the prime minister, the opposition leader and the chief justice would each be allowed to vote for a senator to fill the vacancy. The ballots cast by the 20 would decide who was to fill the vacant seat.

Of course, there was a problem. Senator Landry, to peals of laughter, wondered what would happen if each of the 20 should vote for himself. Parley said it was impossible, as his second part of the plan was to have the governor general make the appointments without the advice of the prime minister and cabinet — highly undemocratic, as the governor general, although the British monarchy’s surrogate in Canada as the head of government, is not an elected official.

Senator McMullen advocated a portion of the Senate being elected by provincial legislators. On reaching a certain age, senators would be retired on full pay, he added. At the time, senators served for life, which has since been reduced to age 75.

Brandon Senator Kirchhofer said that Laurier’s notice to bring in a bill reforming the Senate was only a bluff. “The upper house does not oppose bills because they are brought up by a Liberal government but on their merit solely,” he claimed, although this statement had more to do with political double-talk than fact.

By 1896, the Senate majority had actually swayed to the Liberal side, which made it all the more quizzical why Laurier even contemplated reform.

It could be, as the Portage la Prairie Weekly  claimed on January 29, 1908, that the Senate had become “a graveyard of political reputation.”

A February 13, 1900, editorial in the Winnipeg Telegram reinforced this view when it was said, the “worst feature of the Senate under the Conservatives was the use that was made of it to over-ride the will of the people by giving seats in it to men who were voted down by the electors.” 

The newspaper called this practice — still continued today — an insult to the voters of Canada.  The same newspaper declared the Laurier government was selling Senate seats “at $10,000 apiece.”

In the case of Robert Watson, a former commissioner of public works in the Manitoba Liberal Thomas Greenway government, appointed to the Senate, the newspaper asked, “Would the people of Manitoba who voted Mr. Watson out of office, vote him into the senate as their representative?” The Telegram concluded, they would not.

A.S. Hardy, the premier of Ontario, backed Senate reform in 1899, saying, “The senate has lost the confidence of the people ... and has become an obstruction.”

La Patrie, a Montreal-based newspaper, proclaimed the Senate “a wrecking committee, a committee of political assassination” in 1900. It said the Senate had prevented the Laurier government “from governing the country freely, and they have placed above the popular chamber (House of Commons and) the will of the people(,) their caprices and their arbitrary desires ... its reform has become imperative.”

Laurier’s goal of true reform was never attained due to political expediency as well as Conservative and Senate obstruction. 

Harper’s present actions of appointing only Conservative senators to obtain a majority in the Red Chamber, confirms what Laurier said over 100 years ago: as long as appointments remain in the hands of the prime minister, the Senate will continue to defy meaningful reform.