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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


June 6th, 1999.

"The Canadian Senate, A Political Bone Yard."

An "upper chamber" such as the House of Lords in England, and the Canadian Senate (styled after the House of Lords) was meant to be a "revising and suspending House."1 It is a chamber with (in most cases) "a veto of delay, with (in most cases) a power of revision, but with no other rights or powers." These are the words of Walter Bagehot [1826-77, lawyer, editor and manager of the Economist (1860-77)] who continues in his great work The English Constitution: "The question we have to answer is, 'The House of Lords being such, what is the use of the Lords?'"2

Bagehot's answer, is that this upper chamber, if I understand Bagehot correctly, in very hard times, would become a political canary, so to speak. Should the masses heat up sufficiently that there might well be a threaten insurrection or revolution, then the cry will go up against this toothless chamber; and the lower chamber, the House of Commons, the chamber with the real power, can take steps to settle the country down.

"So long as many old leaves linger on the November trees, you know that there has been little frost and no wind: just so while the House of Lords retains much power, you may know that there is no desperate discontent in the country, no wild agency likely to cause a great demolition."3

Remember this is an argument for the retention of a powerless Upper Chamber, not an argument to be advanced against a powerful senate as is found in the United States which has a true bicameral form of government, a concept treated elsewhere. Bagehot continues:

"With a perfect Lower House it is certain that an Upper House would be scarcely of any value. If we had an ideal House of Commons perfectly representing the nation, always moderate, never passionate, abounding in men of leisure, never omitting the slow and steady forms necessary for good consideration, it is certain that we should not need a higher chamber. The work would be done so well that we should not want any one to look over or revise it. And whatever is unnecessary in government is pernicious. Human life makes so much complexity necessary that an artificial addition is sure to do harm: you cannot tell where the needless bit of machinery will catch and clog the hundred needful wheels; but the chances are conclusive that it will impede them somewhere, so nice are they and so delicate. But though beside an ideal House of Commons the Lords would be unnecessary, and therefore pernicious, beside the actual House a revising and leisured legislature is extremely useful, if not quite necessary."4

___________________

NOTES:

1 "The Senate is one of the few unsatisfactory creations of the Fathers of Confederation. ... [It] has become the citadel of a defeated party." On its setup in 1867, "no one foresaw, in truth, that the Senate would consider measures chiefly on party grounds, and would fail to demonstrate the usefulness of a second chamber by industry and capacity in revising hasty legislation. ... Its chief value has been as a reservoir of party patronage." (See Colquhoun, The Fathers of Confederation, No.28 in the 32 volume series on the history of Canada edited by Wrong and Langton, (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Co., 1914-6), pp. 80, 129-30.)

2 Remember Bagehot, a political scholar and writer of the first order, was asking this question in 1867, the very year that Canada came into being with its own upper chamber styled after the House of Lords?

3 The English Constitution at p. 94.

4 Ibid., at p. 95.

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Peter Landry

1999 (2011)