Keep the Senate secondary


Kathryn Blaze Carlson’s consideration of an elected Senate includes an intriguing anecdote from Senator Bert Brown.

Mr. Brown recalls how he and Mr. Harper discussed at Caesar’s how a reformed, elected Senate and an unchanged House of Commons might interact: A Senate with newfound democratic legitimacy might rival the House in ways never before seen, and both men knew there was nothing in the Constitution preventing a deadlock or even a Senate-sparked government shut-down.

The prime minister asked Mr. Brown to come up with a mechanism that would protect the supremacy of the House of Commons. But that safeguard would require the sort of stand-alone constitutional amendment Mr. Harper knows would be a nightmare to attempt.

This begs various questions: Is the government going to act to protect the supremacy of the House of Commons? If so, how? And if the Senate is to remain secondary, why not just abolish it?


Keep the Senate secondary

  1. “why not just abolish it?”

    NOW yer talkin’!

    The senate is more damn trouble than it’s worth….get rid of it.

  2. Seems to me that the intent of the founding fathers was to keep the senate secondary and that’s why they made it appointed in the first place. It doesn’t have the legitimacy the House of Commons does for just that reason.

    As for abolishing it, I can’t fathom that idea either.

    What’s the issue people seem to have with proof-reading these days anyways? LOL

    • That’s what Commons committees are for.

      • Because it only takes a year or two to understand how legislation works well enough to be able to proof-read it properly, right?  That’s why lawyers only need six months training? Oh wait.

        • It’s what we’ve been doing for well over a century in the Commons.

          You were expecting failed Con candidates and illiterate coaches appointed to the Senate to do better?

          • Not immediately, but they’ve got the time frame to gain experience, and their peers on the senate already have that experience to impart to them.

          • There is always continuity in both the House and the Senate, plus a raft of lawyers, experienced civil servants, and constitutional experts able to help if need be.

          • Helping and being the one what does it are very different things. And as Phil points out, the level of partisanship experienced by MPs is much larger than that by senators. And with senators it lessens as time goes on.

      • What I like about the senate is that it’s a separate group of people with no ties to the original drafting who are looking it over.

        People who have nothing to fear from having an “unpopular” opinion, and can thus be counted on generally to say what they actually think about the legislation.

        Commons committees are good too, but they’re very partisan these days and it’s the same MPs anyways, so it doesn’t really serve the same purpose from my perspective.

        Personally I’d like senate positions to be selected based on merit criteria considered by a randomly selected jury-style public forum balanced by demographic with the list of potential candidates being generated by through an open public process, but maybe that’s just me?

        • Considering that Harper is topping up the senate with partisan senators who vote for the good of the party, I’d say that argument is out the window.

          It makes them no better than the committees whose work they duplicate.

          It’s another level of govt and bureaucracy we don’t need….and Cons are supposedly working towards smaller govt.

          • I don’t know about that. I mean obviously Harper’s appointees are going to vote on the basis of conservatism, but beyond that I think there’s a certain amount of freedom in the senate that MPs just don’t have.

            One way or another Senators are more free to disagree than MPs, especially backbenchers in Harper’s government.

            Once given the job, a senator can only be replaced over the longhaul, no matter what Harper thinks is going to happen.

            That gives one a certain license to be true to one’s own sense of things.

          • Yes, that’s working out so well isn’t it….

          • @OriginalEmily1:disqus Well I hardly expect them to blockade the current government’s elected mandate. The effects of what I’m talking about are more long term.

            The senate is a backstop. It’s really the only thing between the Prime Minister and absolute power, outside the House of Commons.

        • Sounds a lot more complex than our elections, even.
          Personally, I think anything that rewards campaigning to the general public be avoided. That’s what the House is for.

          • No campaigning allowed in that scenario.

            From my perspective the “popularity” angle needs some means of being balanced with a “common sense” angle.

            The current senate does that pretty well from my perspective, but removing the obvious partisanship would be nice too.

          • When you have the list of potential candidates generated by an open public process, you have campaigning.

          • @Thwim:disqus I would expect a merit based position to have requirements, so obviously you’d have to meet them first.

            Secondly, the actual decision is made by the “jury” so popularity isn’t directly considered. There’s no “vote” after all.

            Anyways, just an idea.

          • And as ideas for senate reform go, not a bad one at all, I’ll admit. I was just voicing my own concerns about it. Plus, part of me wonders what kind of cost we’d incur for this type of system and whether the benefits it would bring over our current system justify it.

      • Commons committees are a political circus. Period.

        • They don’t need to be….and now what we have is a senatorial circus.

    • The Senate, in many respects, simply paralleled the House of Lords. In 1867 there was no general belief that the Lords were considered “secondary” to the commons, although that concept was present in the requirement that the govenment have the support of the House.  The Consititution Act of 1867 doesn’t reflect any suggestion that the Senate was seen as “secondary”, although it has clearly become so in practice.  Were it to regain power by virtue of democratic legitimacy that might very well reflect the intentions of the orginal drafters of the consititution.  Australia functions well (with the occasional hiccup) with co-equal Houses of Parliament.  There is no reason Canada could not function equally as well.

      • Well I don’t know, I’ve read more than one quote from historians suggesting it was otherwise. For example, historian Christopher Moore.

        “…Confederation makers back in the 1860s made the Senate appointed to ensure that it would be weak, to ensure that it wouldn’t have legitimacy to challenge the democratically elected House of Commons…”


        • It is certainly possible MacDonald intended that to happen, and it did work out that way, eventually.  But there is nothing in the Act itself that suggests such a thing.  Certainly the quasi-appointed nature of the US Senate did not seem to establish it as a “secondary” chamber for the first 120 years of its existence.

          • I don’t think the American system is really very comparable to ours at all. It’s practically predicated on ensuring nobody can get anything done. I mean hell, the president’s most touted power is a veto! LOL

            I agree the British House of Lords is where we got the idea, but it has a totally different context in Canada, so it’s only slightly more comparable by my way of thinking.

            Personally I think the obsession with “doing something” about the Senate is in fact a distraction from the fact that we REALLY need to DO SOMETHING about representation in the House of Commons.

            Until the actual support of a party is reflected in the make up of the House, I think people are going to remain dissatisfied.

      • Are Australia’s houses co-equal? I thought deadlocks were resolved by joint session, where one house has 3x the representation of the other.

  3. Yet another exercise in useless “what if” journalism.

    • Sheesh. Does everything have to be Shakespeare, or are people not allowed to discuss options?

      Either way I fail to see your point.

  4. Here is a quote from MacDonald, from the 1864 Quebec conference (which was largely concerned with the Senate. Note that all colonies but BC had an upper house and in many cases they were elected:
    The arguments for an elective Council are numerous and strong; … I hold that this principle has not been a failure in Canada; but there were causes – which we did not take into consideration at the time – why it did not so fully succeed in Canada as we had expected. One great cause was the enormous extent of the constituencies and the immense labour which consequently devolved on those who sought the suffrage of the people for election to the Council. For the same reason … the legitimate expense was so enormous that men of standing in the country, eminently fitted for such a position, were prevented from coming forward …
    There would be no use of an Upper House, if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the Lower House. It would be of no value whatever were it a mere chamber for registering the decrees of the Lower House. It must be an independent House, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people”.11

    • Nice quote!

  5. The conversation that would have occurred between Messrs. Harper and Brown is very telling.  They know the problem, but like for the GST, they know that going with this will bring them votes.  

    These people campaigned on more seats in the HoC based on the democratic legitimacy of rep by pop.  They are now willing to give full legitimacy to the Senate to block the House where seats distribution can only be changed by constitutional negotiations – and tough ones at that. 

    Small wonder these men think that it matters not that Canada ends up with one, two or ten national governments.

  6. As in Canada, the Australian senate cannot initiate supply bills, but it has the authority to block any legislation, including the budget – as it did in 1975, forcing the constitutional crisis that led to Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as PM.

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