Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s longest-serving and more politically savvy prime ministers, once mused that the Canadian Senate defied any meaningful reform as long as appointments to the Upper House were left in the hands of the prime minister.
Recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reinforced the truth behind Laurier’s words when he appointed five new senators (just one senator-in-waiting was elected by Alberta voters), despite a March 2004 promise that, “I will not name appointed people to the Senate.”
The Senate has once again become an object of scorn in the media, partially as a result of the prime minister’s appointments, but primarily due to the arrest of one senator for physical assault and sexual assault (since out on bail, tossed out of the Conservative caucus and suspended by the Senate), and at least three being under investigation for claiming an allowance — paid for by Canadian taxpayers — for a secondary residence in the National Capital Region when they declared in writing that they had a primary residence 100 kilometres away from Parliament Hill. But it is questionable whether they actually have primary residences that far away, and a special Senate committee is now looking at all senators making the claim. This is not the chamber of “sober second thought” proclaimed by Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.
Similar to today’s Harper Conservatives, Laurier and the Grits ran in a 1896 federal election promising a massive overhaul of the Senate. The Laurier reforms included term limits, as well as the possibility of electing senators. The Liberals even considered the outright abolishment of the Senate. All these over 100-year-old proposals are now being mentioned as possiblities to reform the Senate.
The spate of recent appointments brings the number of Harper appointees to 53 in the 105-seat Senate. His numerous appointees assure that the Conservatives have a majority in the Upper House, which he earlier maintained was essential in order to avoid obstruction of legislation passed in the elected House of Commons. It was a position also taken by the Liberals so many years ago.
“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, speculated that the need for reform arose only when there was a desire to have the Senate echo the policies of the government. 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.
Over time, 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 seemingly continued today — an insult to the voters of Canada. The same newspaper declared the Laurier government was selling Senate seats “at $10,000 apiece.” Today, the seat sale is for an annual salary of over $132,000 plus perks at taxpayers’ expense.
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, editorialized that senators “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.
But there was one upper chamber that was abolished. At one time, Manitoba had its own Senate, which was called the Legislative Council that was made up of seven members appointed for life. When Robert “Hotel Premier” Davis elevated Colin Inkster from the unelected council to a cabinet position, the Manitoba Free Press declared the “novel cabinet ... must excite ridicule and disgust throughout the whole civilized world.”
The same newspaper in 1874 claimed upper houses were established in the old days to protect the Crown rather than the people. Such a body may have provided some service many years ago, according to the newspaper, “but that day is past.”
A movement arose to abolish the council as an unnecessary expense to the province, although some argued any legislation declaring its demise would be open to a challenge on constitutional grounds, since the council was established under the terms of the Manitoba Act of 1870.
But in Ottawa, the Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie Liberal government assured Davis it would not intervene. At the time, provincial legislation was sometimes overturned (disallowed) in Ottawa for alleged constitutional reasons when such legislation didn’t fit the goals of the federal government then in power.
When the council was abolished by provincial legislation in 1876, MLA Joseph Lemay sarcastically suggested to “roars of laughter” that the legislative assembly be adjourned for a month “as a token of sorrow” to mark the passing away of the Legislative Council. He further asked that a resolution be passed compelling each member “to attend the funeral.”
In effect, Lemay was stating the obvious — few would miss the unelected Legislative Council.
If only it was that simple today. But the constitutional ramifications have already been noted, with the Conservative government saying it will seek advice from the Supreme Court of Canada on its Senate Reform Act (Bill C-7) as well as the possibility of abolishing the Senate.
A debate that has been ongoing for well over 100 years without any substantive outcome is proof positive that the Senate still defies meaningful reform. It would be quite a feat for even the Supreme Court of Canada to untangle the Constitutional web that is the Senate.