It clauses—but was a simple it bill provoked with five an brief anguished parliamentary crisis over Canada’s role in the British Empire.
In December, 1912, as war loomed in Europe, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden introduced the Naval Aid Bill, calling for an emergency grant of $35 million to build three Dreadnought battleships for Britain’s Royal Navy. Liberal Leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier countered that the contribution did not express the “aspirations of the Canadian people”—and he called instead for the construction of two fleets on Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts. After four months of acrimonious debate, Borden invoked closure, pushing the bill through its final Commons reading on May 15. But the Liberal-dominated Senate quickly returned it, with a curt message: “This House is not justified in giving its assent to the bill until it is submitted to the judgement of the country.”
Reform: That remarkable episode vividly illustrates the power of the Senate to affect government legislation—a power which has provoked many prime ministers to threaten Senate reform. Indeed, the Senate has occasionally delayed, amended or flatly rejected House of Commons bills since Confederation in 1867. And last week, constitutional authorities generally agreed that Liberal Leader John Turner had the legal right when he directed the Liberal majority in the Senate to delay enabling legislation for the Canada-United States free trade agreement. And, the authorities added, the Senate has the right to delay the bill past its Jan. 1, 1989, deadline. But those experts disagree over another crucial question: does the delay of such vital legislation violate constitutional convention, the unwritten tradition governing the conduct of a nonelected body?
The Senate last defeated a House of Commons bill on April 20, 1939, when it flatly rejected an amendment to the Farmers’ Creditors Arrangement, which extended the time limit for farmers to apply for federal aid. But the Senate has employed a variety of other procedural methods to block legislation. From 1960 to 1984, 11 bills that the Commons sent on to the Senate failed to receive royal assent. Deliberate procedural delays killed some bills. But in other cases the Senate forced the government to back down. In 1961, when the Conservative government introduced legislation to fire
Bank of Canada governor James Coyne, the Senate endorsed a banking committee report that recommended the Senate should not proceed with the legislation. That same day, Coyne resigned, and the government withdrew the bill.
Governments have also had to
withdraw legislation because Senate amendments distorted the original intent. University of Toronto historian Desmond Morton cited the Senate’s actions throughout the 1920s when it cut provisions out of House of Commons legislation that would have granted more funds to pensioners. But the 1912 naval aid bill, which Borden eventually withdrew, is the closest parallel to Turner’s action. Retired senator Eugene Forsey, an expert on parliamentary procedure, argues that the precedent allows Turner to “properly say, ‘The same thing was done in connection with the Borden naval bill and should be done this time.’ ”
Record: Another U of T historian, Maurice Careless, said that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s own record makes Turner’s case stronger. Mulroney opposed free trade during his successful campaign for the Conservative party
leadership in 1983. And he did not focus on the issue during the 1984 election campaign. Declared Careless: “If there is a convention which should be pretty strong, it is that you do not do things that are diametrically opposed to what you said you were going to do when you got elected.”
In contrast, other constitutional experts argued that it is highly improper for a nonelected body to delay such vital legislation. Declared University of Victoria political scientist Terence Morley: “His tactic is constitutionally improper—it goes to the heart of responsible government.” Added York University historian Jack Granatstein: “The convention is that the Senate rubber-stamps the bills for the House.”
Still, the experts generally agreed that if there is an election this year and Mulroney is re-elected with a majority government, the Senate will have to pass the free trade bill. And, whatever the outcome, Turner’s tactic has taken its controversial place in the annals of parliamentary procedure.
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