Canadian Senate a National Asset

Will this Summer s conference be death-knell of our second chamber?

ARTHUR HANNAY April 15 1925

Canadian Senate a National Asset

Will this Summer s conference be death-knell of our second chamber?

ARTHUR HANNAY April 15 1925

Canadian Senate a National Asset


Will this Summer s conference be death-knell of our second chamber?

Editor's Note—Mr. Hannay was, for nearly twenty years, a member of the Ottawa Press Gallery. For a decade he “covered" the Senate.

THIS summer representatives of ten Canadian Governments are going to meet and talk over the Canadian Senate. Reforming or abolishing the Senate is an old game, but this time it is to be played in a different way. The Senate was only seven years of age when Hon. David Mills, by resolution in the Commons, asked for its reform.

Periodically since, in the Commons, in Legislatures, in the press and in the senate itself people have been proposing plans to strengthen, to weaken or altogether to do away with the Senate. At least two political parties have put Senate reform planks into their platforms and have made an election issue of the proposal. Still the Senate calmly goes •on, as it has been going for almost sixty years, unscathed and unchanged except by

death of old and appointment of new members.

If it can get over the hurdle which is to be placed for it this summer, the Senate should go on to a ripe old age pretty much as it started, with a snuff-box, a red carpet and a lot of brains. So far this combination has enabled the Senate to sneeze at attackers which have included Liberal members, Conservative members, and Progressive members, Liberal conventions and Progressive contentions all armed with resolutions.

But this year the Speech from the Throne announces “the calling of a conference between Federal and Provincial Governments to consider the advisability of amending the British North America act with respect to the constitution and powers of the Senate” and a resolution of the House, on March ninth, which confirmed the proposal for the conference, opened with a declaration “that, in the opinion of this House, the Senate, as at present constituted, is not of the greatest advantage to Canada.”

Hence the Dominion Government and the nine provincial Governments will meet to see if, and how, the Senate can be made over so that it may be more to the advantage of Canada. If a true bill is found and a verdict agreed upon, the Imperial Parliament then will be asked to amend the British North America act so that Canada may have some kind of a new Senate—or none at all. • Immediate danger to the Senate, as at present constituted, lies in the fact that Liberals and Progressives are committed to Senate reform, that when they meet this summer, should feel that they must do some Senate reforming, and that of the Governments which will confer, seven are Liberal, two are Farmer or Progressive and only one Conservative. The conference majority for Senate reform, therefore, should be nine to one.

Not Easy to Change

DUT there is another way of looking at the situation.

The Senate was created by the British North America act, which is a pretty solid and substantial document, and which can be changed only by the British Parliament. It is not likely that Parliament will change it unless asked to do so by all parties interested or affected, and these parties include not only the Dominion Government, the federal Commons, the provincial Governments and Legislatures, but the Senate itself. This is quite a number and variety of bodies to bring to unanimous agreement. The Senate was avowedly created to protect the interests of minorities, and some of the bodies which will be at the

conference are just th at—minoriti es.

Quebec considers itself a French minority in an English country; Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island regard themselves as minorities in respect of population, and steadily becoming more so. Every census changes the proportion of representation each Province has in the Commons, but in the Senate each of the older provinces is as numerously represented as at the time of Confederation and the newer provinces have the same Senate voice that was given them when created. The Senate has an authorized membership of ninety-six, made up of four groups of twentyfour. That is the three Maritime Provinces have one group of twenty-four senators, Quebec another, Ontario another and the four Western provinces also an equal number.

Provinces which are being out-stripped in population growth are losing voting power in the Commons, and this has happened to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PrinceEdward Island.

In fact, Prince Edward Island has progressed so poorly in the population race, that special legislation had to be enacted to preserve her Commons representation at four members for her population of 88,536 people, which is considerably below the population of several of the single ridings in Quebec, in Ontario and in Western Canada. To-day Prince Edward Island has four members and exactly the same number of senators.

From a provincial viewpoint, representation in the Senate is worth keeping, because the Senate has just the same legislative authority as the Commons, except as to initiating or amending money bills. It is to be noted, also, that the smaller provinces will go to the Senate reform conference, each with as much authority as the larger provinces and they are not likely to consent either to the reduction of their power in the Senate or, what would amount to the same thing, an increase of the Senate power of larger provinces. The Eastern attitude of mind has been disclosed in discussing the enlargement of other provinces.

The Maritime Provinces cannot have territorial expansion, being entirely surrounded by water, Quebec and the State of Maine, but, during the past twenty-four years, habitable areas have been given to each of the other Provinces; that the Maritimes have not the same chance as other provinces for increase of population and parliamentary power has been and is an Eastern grievance. It may not be quite logical that the Mari-

times with only a million people should have the same number of Senators as Quebec with two and a third millions, Ontario with almost three millions or the Western provinces with two and a half millions; but that was the Confederation pact, those were the terms on which the Maritimes entered the Union; and the British Parliament is not likely to break the terms of the contract against the protest of any party to that contract, and protests can be looked for if any change is sought in the proportion of Senate representation or diminution of the Senate’s powers.

So much for what may or may not be done; why should anything be done? What is wrong with the Senate? If there is anything wrong with the Senate, it is the House of Commons. This is because all of the Ministers with departments sit in the Commons and, naturally, they take all their legislative business to the Commons. It is not, as the resolution declares, because of the way that “the Senate is appointed and constituted that it is not of the greatest advantage to Canada,” but because it is starved. It does not get enough legislative work at the beginning or middle of sessions and gets altogether too much during closing days. The Senate is a fine legislative chamber and even as things are, it does pretty well considering its limited opportunity. It talks less and works faster and more efficiently than the Commons. It could be made one of the most efficient pieces of legislative machinery in the world without the trouble of having a provincial conference or bothering the Imperial Parliament for an amendment of the British North America act. All it needs is work and time in which to do it.

Is Senate Partisan?

THE chief criticisms of the Senate are that it is an appointed body and, therefore, partisan and not responsible to the people; that a new Government meets in the Senate, an adverse majority with power to obstruct and veto; that it is the champion of special interests and privileges; that it does not represent the popular will; that it is too large; and that Senators are appointed for life.

Among reforms that have been proposed are that Senators should be elected instead of appointed; that, if

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appointed, the appointments should be made by provincial Governments or provincial legislatures instead of senators being named by the Dominion Government; that the number of senators should be reduced and that tenure of a Senator should be for a term or to an age limit instead of for life.

These are very interesting criticisms and suggestions, but there is something to be said against, as well as for, each of them.

In the first place, take the question of the appointment of partizans and adverse majorities for new Governments. There is no doubt as to partizan appointments. No Liberal Government would dare to appoint other than a Liberal to the Senate and so it is with Conservative or Progressive Governments. Their supporters would not tolerate the appoint-

ment of opponents, though an occasional neutral could be and has been named.

But long observation shows that however partizan a man may have been to get into the Senate, after he has signed the roll, sworn the oath and taken his seat, the diminution of his partizanship is the most expeditious occurrence that can be seen in the precincts of Parliament. He has been in party harness so long, has had so many disappointments, and has made so many enemies among his friends, that he rejoices in new found freedom and takes-an extremely judicial and independent view of Government proposals. The writer, during twenty years observation, has seen as much governmental worrying over the attitude of their own Senatorial * appointees as over appointees of the other party.r As for new Governments and adContinued on page 52

Continued, from page 49 verse majorities, the records do not show that this has been substantially troublesome. The Laurier Government in 1896 met an adverse Senate majority of fiftyfive, and the Borden Government in 1911 met an adverse Senate majority of fortysix, but in each case the Senate gave the Government’s legislation fair treatment. A few measures have had rejection by adverse Senates, but these rejections have been no more numerous than Governments have had from friendly Senates. And Governments have more than once looked for and even hoped for rejections by both friends and opponents, and occasionally have been disappointed. If there is partizanship in Parliament, it is in the Commons and not in the Senate; and if Parliamentary partizanship is wrong, that is the place to get after it.

The claim that in the case of Senators there is lack of responsibility to the people is hardly correct, because a Government is responsible to the people and one of its responsibilities is the appointment of honest, capable and competent persons to the Senate, as to the Bench, to Governorships, to the Railway Commission and to the Board of Railway Management. Generally Governments have been thoroughly sensitive to that responsibility and good appointments to the Senate have been the rule. The fact that many Senators have previously sat in the Commons has resulted in a substantial proportion of experienced law makers going into the Upper House. Its new members have been largely old lawmakers.

Direct election of Senators would be an interesting practice in a territory as large as Canada. Many Canadian Constituencies are now so large that candidates campaign them with great difficulty. If the country were cut into ninety-six ridings for Senators, campaigning would be a gigantic task, and as elections are not made with prayers, it would not be a poor man’s game. It would cost something to run a political battle in ridings of such size, win or lose. If Senate membership were reduced and the size of ridings consequently increased, a senatorial election would be a fierce thing to contemplate and a serious thing to finance.

A Millionaire’s Preserve

THE naming of Senators by provincial Governments or provincial legislatures again would tend to make the Senate the preserve of the millionaire. There are a number of rich men in both Houses at present, but the effect of a proposal, such as has been made, to give only four Senators to each province and have them named by provincial legislatures would produce somewhat the conditions found in the United States, where each State sends to Washington two senators who are named by the state legislatures. The result there is that to secure a Senatorship a man has to be a political boss.for a whole State. In Canada it has happened that when orte party has been in power at

Ottawa, the other party has controlled most of the provincial legislatures. Such a situation would give an adverse Senate majority that would be obstructive.

As to privileges and interests influencing the Senate unduly, those who have seen both chambers in action know that if there are such influences they are more effectively applied to the Lower than the Upper House.

The proposals of an age or term limit for Senators has some merit, but it has not been observed that the Senate has been greatly injured in efficiency by the present practice of life appointment. In fact this practice has developed a trained body of sagacious and fair-minded Senators who rnost capably review and revise Commons bills and occasionally check hasty legislation with a veto that makes Government, Commons and constituents stop, look and listen, until another session gives opportunity for réintroduction of the measure.

As stated at the beginning, the Senate is made up of a capable and representative lot of men who have made their way successfully among their fellow citizens. Most of them have worked hard and every variety of vocation is or has, from time to time, been represented in the Senate. Even the pulpit has furnished Senators to associate with lawyers, doctors, manufacturers, bankers, farmers, contractors, sailors, fishermen, miners and lumbermen. In their early years, at least, many have worked with their hands and have looked for the weekly pay envelope.

If it is desired to employ the Senate to . a full degree of usefulness, the thing could be done simply by giving all Ministers of the Crown the right to sit in either, or rather in both, chambers. This would enable a government to present, explain and defend its legislation in the Senate as well as in the Commons. The Prime Minister could easily so programme his legislation that a fair share of it would be presented first to the Senate and give that chamber continuous occupation throughout sessions. This division of work would shorten sessions.

If Ministers were also given the right to vote in the Senate, the problem of adverse majorities to new Governments would speedily be corrected.

In making appointments, it would appear practical and proper to recognize theoretical political economy by the appointment of Senators from the heads or staffs of Universities. There are six vacancies in the Senate now, so there need be no delay in giving Universities parliamentary representation, a thing they have not so far had.

Small committees of Senators could be set to work improving Canada’s foreign relations. There are some countries such as Greece, Latvia, Esthonia and Portugal, which need attention. A couple of Senators could no doubt be found capable and willing to co-operate with the Government and the departments in the work of treaty or agreement making with each of these or any other country.

What the Senate really needs is not reform, but a chance.