The History of Senate Reform, 1867 to 1913


I reviewed the political philosophical debate on the merits of the elective versus appointive upper house, and the elective Legislative Council in the earlier post. We’re all generally familiar with the modern proposals for Senate Reform (post-1980), essentially the “Triple-E Senate,” so here I’ll describe the little-known proposals for Senate reform from the 19th century and early 20th century in order to demonstrate that Senate reform has been a fixture in Canadian politics since our Confederation in 1867. Of course, none of these proposals proved successful, but I find the debate instructive; it shows the inherently imperfection of the theory of the balanced constitution that Ajzenstat and Smith discussed in their scholarship. The philosophic disagreements had crystallized before Confederation, and they have continued to manifest themselves as different institutional arrangements.

At the Quebec Conference, two prominent Clear Grits (sometimes called “Canada West Reformers”) supported an elected Senate: William McDougall and Oliver Mowat.[i] Both cut their political teeth in the 1840s as partisans of the movement toward responsible government in Upper Canada, and Mowat served as Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896 and consistently championed provincial rights and decentralized federalism – much to the frustration of his former mentor Sir John A. Macdonald.

On 12 April 1874, David Mills, MP submitted a resolution on reforming the senate such that the provincial legislatures would appoint senators.  It did not call for a re-evaluation of the number of senators representing each province, nor did it question the equality of the regions as opposed to the provinces. By empowering each province to adopt its own procedure, it respected their differences. Even under Mackenzie’s new Liberal government, the proposal fell flat and the issue of senate reform did not reappear in the federal parliament for over thirty years. David Mills clearly rejected the philosophy of the balanced constitution, which created the Senate specifically in order be independent of the crown and of the people.

That the present mode of constituting the Senate is inconsistent with the Federal principle in our system of government, makes the Senate alike independent of the people, and of the crown, and is in other material respects defective, and our Constitution ought to be so amended as to confer upon each Province the power of selecting its own Senators, and to defining the mode of their election.[ii]

On 30 April 1906, Mr. McIntyre, MP for Perth put forward a motion that prescribed changes far less radical than those of Mills. While he invoked “the spirit of representative and popular government”, he did not call for the election of senators, merely the curtailing of their power by limited their appointments to a maximum of fifteen years, or the mandatory retirement age of 80. The Harper government took on the idea of limiting the tenure of senators in the 39th Parliament, and the Pearson government successfully fixed the retirement age at 75. McIntyre also rejects the theory of the balanced constitution.

That, in the opinion of this House, the Constitution of the Senate should be brought into greater accord with the spirit of representative and popular government, and the genius of the Canadian people, by Amendments in future appointments:

1. Abolish the life tenure of Senators.
2. Limit the tenure of one appointment to within the legal term of three Parliaments.
3. Provide a fixed age, not exceeding eighty years, for compulsory retirement.[iii]

In 1909, Mr. Lancaster, MP for Lincoln, advocated outright abolition of the Senate because he believed that the upper house derogated from the principle of responsible government in the lower house and thus threatened Westminster principles and the prerogative of the Crown. Lancaster thus considered any notion of a federal principle deleterious to and incompatible with responsible government.  The New Democratic Party takes a similar position today.

that a Humble Address be presented to His Majesty declaring that the Senate is no longer required or advisable for the carrying on of responsible government in Canada, or a safeguard of His Majesty’s full rights and prerogatives, and that the abolition of the said Senate would greatly conduce to the welfare of the Dominion of Canada, and promote the interests of the British Empire.[iv]

In 1909 Senator Sir Richard Scott introduced a motion on Senate reform that would have hybridized the senate by retaining the Crown prerogative of appointment for one-third of the senators, while electing two-thirds of them and limiting all terms to seven years.

1. That in the opinion of the Senate the time has arrived for so amending the Constitution of this branch of Parliament as to bring the modes of selection of Senators more into harmony with public opinion.
2.That the introduction of an elective element, applying it approximately to two-thirds of the number of Senators, would bring the Senate more into harmony with the principles of popular government than the present system of appointing the entire body of the Senators by Crown for life.
3. That the term for which a Senator may be elected or appointed be limited to seven years.[v]

In the Liberal-Conservative platform of 1908, Borden pledged, under the heading “Reform of the Senate” to implementing “Such reform in the mode of selecting members of the Senate as will make the Chamber a more useful and representative legislative body.”[vi]  The Halifax Platform continued:

those who have watched with any care the work of our Senate in recent years must be convinced that it is not playing the part which was intended by the framers of our Constitution.  There seems to be little sense of individual responsibility, little desire to grapple with public questions, little disposition for effective work, but intense inclination, and indeed resolve, to make its sittings as infrequent and as brief as the barest decency will permit.[vii]

Apart from the more poetic language, Borden’s statement could have come from a more contemporary politician. Many Canadians today would recognise that kind of description of the senate, which shows that so little has changed after one hundred years.  Laurier held the prime ministership from 1896 to 1911, so by the time that Borden took office, most of the senators were Liberals and therefore naturally inclined to oppose Borden’s program.  “On 11 June 1914, Borden introduced legislation for the new Western Senate section” that would have created a new western region and accorded it 24 seats.

The Liberal-dominated Senate, however, […] returned the legislation with an amendment providing that ‘this Act shall not take effect until the termination of the now-existing Canadian Parliament’ […][viii]

After the senate rejected his legislation, Borden was considering requesting dissolution and would have included this plebiscitary question in the election:

Since 1867 the evolution and development of Federal systems both with the British Empire [referring to Australia, which federated in 1901] and in foreign countries has strongly tended in the direction of the election of members of the Upper House instead of appointment thereto by the Executive. Are you in favour of abolishing the Senate of Canada as at present constituted and substituting therefor a Senate elected by the people?[ix]

The outbreak of the First World War halted all further discussion of the issue and prevented an early dissolution and the holding of this proposed referendum.

Mills, McIntyre, Lancaster and Scott all agreed on the basic idea that the Senate had become independent of “popular government”. Indeed, they were right, because the Framers designed the Senate as entirely separate from “popular government” or “responsible government” because they believed that two elective chambers would come into conflict. Smith would probably suggest that all of them failed to consider the Senate in bicameral perspective, in other words, its relationship to the House of Commons within the Crown-in-Parliament. This is why reform of the upper house ought to both introduce election and curtail the Senate’s formal powers so that it is clearly subordinate to the House of Commons and acts primarily as a house of review.

Related Posts:

[i] Ibidum, 70.
[ii]
Sir George Ross, The Senate of Canada: Its Constitution, Powers and Duties Historically Considered. (Toronto: The Copp-Clark Co. Ltd., 1914), 91.
[iii]
Ibidum, 92-93.
[iv]
Ibidum, 94.
[v]
Ibidum, 94-95.
[vi]
D. Owen Carrigan.  Canadian Party Platforms, 1867-1968.  (Toronto: Copp-Clark Publishing Company, 1968): 51.
[vii]
Ibidum, 54.
[viii]
White, 1990, 110.
[ix]
White, The Voice of Region, 110.

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4 Responses to The History of Senate Reform, 1867 to 1913

  1. pp549 says:

    Enjoyed this article! The risk of gridlock is certainly too high to let an elected upper house had co-equal power with the lower house. A Canadian-style Whitlam-Kerr debacle is unlikely but still very undesirable.

    I still prefer an unelected upper house, appointed by an independent commission whose chair is elected by, and responsible to, parliament which appoints independent-minded parliamentarians for the chamber which doesn’t have to worry about confidence.

    I don’t suppose you know where I might find some information on the procedural reforms of the Senate from 1906 to 1991 including the committee reforms of the 60s? I’ve not had much luck, even with books that I had high hopes for like The Unreformed Senate of Canada and The Modern Senate of Canada.

    • I’m glad that you liked this little analysis. One day, (after finishing my thesis and various other projects), I will write an article on the history of Senate Reform in Canada.

      You probably like Lord Norton’s “counter-reformation” proposal of the House of Lords, I imagine.

      I’m not particularly familiar with procedural reform in the Senate.That said, you may want to look to C.E.S. Franks’ “The Parliament of Canada” and David E. Smith’s “The Senate of Canada in Bicameral Perspective,” and Serge Joyal’s “Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew.” (The letter is an edited volume).

      • pp549 says:

        Thanks! I always enjoy reading about upper houses, so they will be on my reading list.

        And yes, I do like Lord Norton’s proposals, though my personal preference is a bit stronger than his in stripping away some of the patronage and strengthening the cross-benches.

  2. Pingback: The Harper Government’s Senate Reform Act and Its Implications on Crown Prerogative and Responsible Government | Parliamentum

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