How the scandal-plagued Canadian Senate can be abolished

If history is any guide, some amount of subterfuge and/or bribery will probably be required

By:  Lee Tunstall | Troy Media

Canadian Senate. Photo: Vlad Litvinov/Flickr

Canadian Senate. Photo: Vlad Litvinov/Flickr

Sick of the senators? And by senators I do not mean the ones on skates, although admittedly the other ones are skating on pretty thin ice right now. Given the recent antics in the Canadian Senate, it may be helpful for the Canadian public to know that upper houses have been abolished before.

And on Canadian soil.

Full disclosure: I used to work for a Canadian Senator, so I have some personal insight into the august institution. I actually feel the Senate can play a useful role in legislation, but has not been well served by the recent introduction of highly partisan politics.

Canada used to be full of upper chambers, known as provincial Legislative Councils. Only half of our 10 provinces (B.C., Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador) escaped from ever having a bicameral system. The last provincial Legislative Council to be abolished was Quebec’s in 1968.

If Canadians made it clear they wanted to abolish the federal Senate, how would we do it? It is a particularly thorny question because, in order to be abolished, the Senate itself would have to agree to its own demise.

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But it has been done before, and we might be able to learn from some of these successful strategies. Manitoba’s brief flirtation with a Legislative Council provides one intriguing possibility. Manitoba’s seven-member Council lasted only six years, from 1870 to 1876 but, by all accounts, it had been an effective body while in existence. Why was it abolished then? Quite simply, they couldn’t afford it.

In 1874, the young province was booming, but almost bankrupt. They appealed to the Liberal federal government for financial aid, which they duly received, with the proviso that their upper house be abolished to help cut expenses. A law was duly introduced in 1874, and duly rejected by the Council. Next year, same result. It was the Lieutenant Governor, Alexander Morris, who finally brokered an elegant solution. He quietly reminded the Councillors that federal funding would not be available to pay their salaries, but not to worry, he would ensure they got plum positions elsewhere. The bill successfully passed in 1876.

Admittedly, Manitoba’s upper house did not have a long history, and so that might have helped in the decision to abandon it. What if the Legislative Council had been around for a long time and had become an entrenched institution in provincial politics? Nova Scotia’s experience with its Legislative Council may provide a good example.

Nova Scotia had an upper house from 1838 to 1928, but following Confederation the institution was seen as less important, as many powers had been taken over by the federal government. Also, many of the Councillors had gone on to take positions within the federal government, either as MPs or Senators. Faced with less to do and a smaller pool of qualified candidates, pressure mounted for the Legislative Council to be abolished.

What followed was almost 50 years of Nova Scotia politicians attempting to get rid of their upper house. It was eventually accomplished under the Conservative government of E.G. Rhodes. Rhodes had replaced a 42-year Liberal regime, and was faced with a stacked Liberal Legislative Council. After having tried, and failed, to offer them a generous monetary parting gift, which the Councillors labelled as a bribe, he came up with a novel solution: expand the membership of the Council with a majority of new members, appoint his own men, and then pass the vote for abolishment easily.

What followed was a constitutional morass, as the council had a maximum limit of 21 members. Finally, a judicial decision came down stating that Councillors served at the pleasure of the Lieutenant Governor and not for life, and that he could appoint as many as he chose. As a result, Rhodes had all but one Liberal Councillor dismissed, and then appointed 21 more men who had but one task: to vote themselves out of a job.

So it seems upper houses never go without a fight, and some amount of subterfuge and/or bribery is usually required to get them to agree to their own extinction. Good thing that federal Conservative parliamentarians have proven they are quite open to considering all of these tactics over the past few weeks.

Troy Media columnist Lee Tunstall has a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

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