Bob Rae on abolishing the Senate, circa 1984 -

Bob Rae on abolishing the Senate, circa 1984

Long ago wisdom from a young New Democrat


From the archives of the Canadian Parliamentary Review, an essay written by the 35-year-old leader of the Ontario NDP, at the time two years removed from fours in the House of Commons as an NDP MP.

Our parliamentary institutions were clearly modelled in 1867 on those of Britain at that time. Surely it is hardly a radical suggestion to say that the Canada of 1984 is profoundly different from the British unitary state of 1867. Canada’s Senate was not seen at that time as in any sense representative of the federal principle. Rather it was intended, as was the nineteenth and early twentieth century House of Lords, as a kind of property brake on the democratic principles emerging in the House of Commons. The House of Lords, and hence in conception the Senate. existed to keep the democrats (I say “democrats” and not necessarily “New Democrats”) from getting carried away. That, in concise terms is the basis of the cliché about the Senate as a source of sober second thought and the concern consistently expressed in this last century. not confined to Canada, that second chambers were necessary to protect business and commercial interests from the Workings of popular government.

In its conception and in its operations, the Senate is neither regionally representative in the sense that we understand it today, nor is it democratic. In tact the Canadian Senate is an undemocratic institution working at the heart of democratic government. That fact, combined with the history of the Senate as nothing more or less than a tool of patronage in the hands of the party in power, has led our party to the conviction that the Senate should be abolished.