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Abolish or Reform the Senate?

on Sunday, 01 May 1955. Posted in Politics

The reform of the Senate was promised by the Liberal Party years ago, even before this party took power in 1926. What the reform would be, was not specified. But it seems to have consisted in changing the majority of the Upper House from Conservative to Liberal, by the appointment of Liberals to fill the vacancies which occurred through a quarter of a century.

On May 31, the question was brought before the House for the nth time, under the form of an amendment, by Mr. George Drew, leader of the Opposition. It was the occasion of some speeches followed by a vote which, being the usual party vote, defeated the amendment.

Speaking on the amendment, Mr. Solon Low, leader of the Social Credit group, made these remarks:

"There is no doubt at all that the Senate has declined in popularity in Canada over the years... Some hold that the Senate needs reforming because the Senate itself has gone bad. Other people have different views.

"In my mind, the question is: Is reform of the Senate the important necessity, or is reform of the government's attitude to the Senate what is necessary?".

And in Mr. Low's opinion, it is the second question which deserves an affirmative answer:

"The Senate is prepared to undertake whatever work it can do. It has already been said we have accumulated in that house (the Senate) a great deal of experience, men of real stature, broad experience and good minds — and women, of course. Now, why accumulate that experience and that ability in a second chamber if it is not being used properly."

Mr. Low means that the government should give the Senate more and appropriate work to do — and he mentions the kind of work which is generally given to Royal Commissions.

However — and Mr. Low mentions it also —

"When Canada first adopted the bicameral system, it was thought that the Senate would fit into the federal constitution, particularly as the champion of provincial rights."

If so, the question may be asked: How can we expect the provincial rights to be championed by Senators who were appointed to their office by the central (and centralizing) government?

The Senators are not subject to election. Provincial governments have no say in their appointment. Not one of them would be there if he had not been a faithful servant of the party which happened to be in power when the death of a Senator opened a vacancy.

If the same party remains in power for a long period, as has been the case with the Liberal party, the Senate becomes, not only the creature of the central government, but the creature of one federal party. Not only is such a Senate poorly prepared to defend provincial rights, but it has practically lost all value as an instrument to check hasty legislation by the party to which its members owe their seats.

We should like very much to know when, in the last decades at least, the Senate has acted in either of these two capacities. Surely not to uphold the autonomy of the province of Alberta, when the Aberhart government passed legislation to place the credit of the province under the control of the people of the province, where it belongs.

There is more than one argument in favor of maintaining the two-chamber system; but the second House must not be a mere duplicate of the first. Nor just a coveted resting-place for politicians who, through the years, are wise enough to bow to their party, right or wrong.

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