What Should be Done with the Canadian Senate
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Mar 1959, p. 261-273
Roebuck, The Honourable Arthur and Richardson, B.T., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
An Exchange of Views.
Senator Roebuck:
The history of the Senate in Canada. The complementary principles of representation by election in the Commons and by appointment in the Senate as fundamental to Canada's Constitution; frequently misunderstood and vastly important to Canada's national life both past and future. The importance of the provision for life appointment. The Parliamentary trends of recent years. The role of the Senate. How the Senate enriches the Councils of the nation and adds materially to the wisdom and effectiveness of Parliament.
Mr. Richardson:
Reform of the Senate. The situation in which the Senate becomes an annex to one or other party. Another look at the origins of the Senate and what the Fathers of Confederation intended. The Senate now, a "political swamp into which a good many good men have disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again." The question of how to make the Senate work. A suggested remedy of internal organization. Taking note of various proposals made for the Senate in the past. Making the Senate an "effective branch of Parliament." The speaker's view of what the Senate needs.
Date of Original
12 Mar 1959
Language of Item
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Full Text
An Exchange of Views By THE HONOURABLE ARTHUR ROEBUCK, Q.C., A Member of the Senate of Canada and B.T. RICHARDSON, Editor of The Toronto Telegram and President of The Canadian Club of Toronto
Thursday, March 12, 1959
CHAIRMAN: The President, Lt.-Col. Bruce Legge.

LT. COL. LEGGE: Appointed and hereditary upper legislative assemblies have been abolished or changed in parts of the Commonwealth. The august House of Lords has now been asked to accept life-time Peers and the even more revolutionary idea that women should sit as Peeresses in their own right. In Canada many shadow Governments have contemplated a reform of the Senate, but on assuming the burdens of Government, they have relented and the Senate continues to live.

The Empire Club of Canada with its traditional interest in Canadian affairs arranged for two experts to explore the role of the Senate. In selecting the participants for such a discussion we were fortunate that both Senator Roebuck and Mr. B. T. Richardson accepted our invitation. Perhaps they so readily agreed because they are members of The Empire Club of Canada and because they are recognized authorities on the ways of Canadian Governments. Both are also devoted to the British principles of behaviour, for Senator Roebuck followed the British practice of resigning from office as an Ontario Cabinet Minister on a matter of principle rather than enjoy office by conforming to a policy in which he did not believe. Then too, Mr. Richardson is, like most democratic journalists, a prodigious believer in the ancient English doctrine of freedom of the press. However, on the newspaper which he edits there is an unusual equality of freedom, for recently there was a leading editorial criticizing one of their own redoubtable political writers on the opposite page. This remarkable freedom is not surprising since Mr. Richardson was a writer in Western Canada for many years and served under John W. Dafoe, the great Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. Since Mr. Richardson received his university education in Winnipeg, Syracuse, and the London School of Economics, it is interesting that he was also a resident correspondent in the capitals of Canada, Britain and the United States. As an Editor he has directed the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Winnipeg Citizen, the Ottawa Citizen, and now the Toronto Telegram. In all these appointments Mr. Richardson has kept a critical eye on Canadian politics and foreign affairs. Today we are honoured to have him discuss his views of the Canadian Senate with the Honourable Arthur Roebuck. Senator Roebuck also began his career as a newspaperman on the editorial staff of the Toronto Daily Star and then for nine years he was the owner and editor of the Temiskaming Herald and Cobalt Citizen. In 1917 he was called to the Bar of Ontario and from then on he practised both law and politics in Ontario. He was variously elected to the Ontario Legislature and to the House of Commons. In Ontario he was Attorney General, Minister of Labour and Hydro Commissioner in the First Ministry of the Honourable Mitchell F. Hepburn, and during the Second World War he was a prominent member of the House of Commons. In 1945 he was summoned to the Upper House by the Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, and he has played a conspicuous part in the deliberations of the Senate ever since.

SENATOR ROEBUCK: Mr. Chairman my first words are of course to thank you for so pleasant an introduction and my second to congratulate you and your associates on your courage in attacking this afternoon that hardy perennial, the Canadian Senate, or as you have phrased it "The Role of the Senate."

A visitor once passed a farmer sitting on his doorstep and after the usual perfunctory salutations added "And how does the land lie around here?" The farmer replied with a smile: "The land around here is honest land, and it doesn't lie; it's those pesky real estate agents that do the lying."

You ask me as to the Role of the Senate, and I reply the Senate does not roll. That ship of state rides serenely on an even keel, with its balance maintained now for approaching one hundred years, despite a never ceasing barrage of criticism.

As you know, The Senate of Canada came into being at Confederation in 1867, but you may not realize that it was a recreation of the Legislative Councils, or Upper Houses of each and all of the confederating Provinces; Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Upper and Lower Canada. The dual Chamber Parliament was nothing new to the Fathers of Confederation. In none of these Legislative Councils were the members elected; they were all appointed, so that the framers of our Constitution had an intimate knowledge and experience of both methods of selection.

The population of Upper Canada was increasing rapidly at that time due to immigration from Great Britain while that of French Lower Canada depended almost entirely upon the cradle, and that of the maritime Provinces was apparently stationary. It was anticipated by some that the population of Ontario would in time outnumber all the rest of Canada.

And so if the principle of representation according to population was to prevail in the new Parliament, a second Chamber with fixed representation was essential to a united Canada. Accordingly, there was devised and is still existing a Parliament consisting of a House of Representatives elected on the basis of representation by population and an Upper House uncontrolled by either the Commons or the Crown, with 24 representatives from each of the three groups, the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario, and, at a later date, with 24 from the four Western Provinces, and still later six from Newfoundland, the members of which receive life appointment from the Crown.

Now let it be observed that similar conditions with regard to population have continued to this day, and, if you find a minimum of fear in any portion of this great domain of domination by any other portion, you may credit it in part at least to the Role of the Senate in our scheme of government. Note that the enemies of the Senate are to be found almost entirely in the populous Provinces, certainly not in Quebec, and I was interested to note a recent statement by the Premier of Nova Scotia that the powers of, and representation in, the Senate of Canada, can be altered only on unanimous consent of all the Provinces.

You would expect the Premier of one of the smaller Provinces to take that stand because if Canada has remained united during her hundred years of history, and if we hope that she will remain united in the future, it will be due to the assurance that no unjust sectional legislation is possible of passage in a Chamber so constituted. The influence of the Senate in this regard is not to be measured by the bills we have rejected, for with the Senate on guard, such bills are not even suggested.

The Crows Nest Pass statutory freight rates will sometime have to be revised, but the farmers of the West will not soon forget that in 1925, the Senate rejected a Commons Bill which would have added many millions of dollars to their transportation costs.

These complementary principles of representation by election in the Commons and by appointment in the Senate are fundamental to our Constitution, and though frequently misunderstood are vastly important to our national life both past and future.

Of vital importance also is the provision for life appointment, because the strength and usefulness of the Senate lies in its independence. Let me spend a few precious moments in calling to your attention the Parliamentary trends of recent years.

When George III was King of England, the monarch controlled the entire patronage of the nation. All appointments to the Army, Navy, Civil Service and the Church were in his hands. He even appointed the Speaker of the Commons, and he chose his Ministers from among his friends. But people would pay taxes only as approved by Parliament. By this control of the purse strings Parliament has forced a transfer to itself of all these former functions of the Crown, so that today the Queen reigns; she does not rule, and the Prime Minister has become all powerful. Parliament is still boss, for the Prime Minister and his cabinet hold office only so long as the elected Commons permits, but in matters of administration Parliament has in recent years been losing its hold as its former powers are transferred to the Executive. There was a time when the Commons controlled the Government; now the Government controls the Commons. This change has been inevitable with the vastly increasing size and complexity of government and its gigantic Civil Service.

If you would know how Executive control over the Commons is effected take a look at the set-up. The House of Commons has 265 Members, and of these usually something more than one-half are on the Government side. Out of this one-half the Prime Minister selects his 20 Cabinet Ministers and potentially as many ministerial assistants all of whom owe direct Cabinet loyalty to the inner circle. Add to this tangle of minor Government preferments, the need for government support at election time, and as well the loyalty which men naturally pay to the organization of which they form part, and you have the secret of the Government's control of the Commons.

On the other hand, the Government has become more and more dependent upon the Civil Service, which controls the sources of information, is the custodian of departmental tradition and experience, draws government bills, supplies material for ministerial speeches, and furnishes that continuity of policy which amazes those unaware of the inner workings. Thus the Civil Service largely controls the executive, and the Executive controls the Commons, and, were it not for the Senate, between the two of them they would control Parliament.

The Government House Leader and the Speaker are the only members of the Senate who continue to owe preferment to the Government of the day, and the present House Leader is not a member of the Cabinet.

All other members, once summoned, hold office for life, with nothing further to hope for and nothing to fear, with no masters but conscience and their loyalty to their country.

That it cannot be controlled is what gives the Senate its strength, and this also explains why it is so continuously and persistently attacked. Ruling cliques change from time to time, and what ruling cliques cannot control they liquidate, if they can.

There is something to be said of course for the principle of electing law makers, but Judges make law, and we do not elect them. What we do is to elect those charged with the appointment of Judges, Civil Servants and Senators and we hold them accountable for the results of their acts.

The role of the Senate is very largely judicial.

We initiate some legislation and we examine with care in Committee every Bill passed by the Commons and we amend them as required and with a frequency which is surprising.

It is not the Role of the Senate to obstruct the elected Government of the day in the carrying out of its policies. Our function is to assist rather than to hinder what is done in the Commons, always reserving the right to delay or reject what is plainly evil.

Thus the Senate enriches the Councils of the nation and adds materially to the wisdom and effectiveness of Parliament.

MR. RICHARDSON: Throughout our political history in Canada, we have had many flurries of talk about reforming the Senate--a sort of a millennial dream of political science--and I am afraid that, after a significant lull in the past few years, when our politics has centred on other more dramatic events, the Empire Club runs the risk of starting it all over again. However, that is the risk you run, and I judge the Empire Club was never one to let sleeping dogs lie. I admire the strict impartiality of Mr. Gelber in organizing this panel--he chose an outstanding Senator and, as an offset, one who never will be a Senator.

The Senate has had few more ardent defenders than the Honourable Senator from Toronto-Trinity, whom we have heard here today, and who will have the opportunity to correct any mistaken impressions I leave. That's the duty of the Senate, to give, as Sir John A. Macdonald put it, a sober second thought to public matters. In its silent and somewhat glum way, that is what the Senate has been doing all these years, mainly to its own satisfaction but to the satisfaction of hardly anyone else.

Senator Roebuck has amply demonstrated, on other occasions as well as this, that he possesses a sensitive grasp of the fact that the Senate is not popular with the public of Canada, that it is in need of reform, and that he shares some of the imaginative and creative ideas that are in circulation on the subject of what should be done about the Senate. If I should happen to express any opinions that could be taken in any way as an indictment of the Senate, I wish it clearly understood that I make no reference in any way to our honourable friends here.

Senator Roebuck participated in a celebrated debate that the Senate itself conducted about its plight and condition, in 1951, I think it was. And if we turn our minds back to those golden days, now so distant in our politics, I think we shall have to agree that there was only one thing wrong with the Senate that was really worth bothering about, and that was this: It had become nothing more than a more or less useful annex to the national Liberal Party. I say "more or less", because the time came when even the Senate, with its sober second thoughts about what was going on, could not save the Liberal Party.

The situation in which the Senate becomes an annex to one or other party is unfortunately, not rare in our history, though it is not as frequent as we may think. When Laurier took office as Prime Minister in 1896, he found the Senate so loaded with Conservatives that it took the lapse of time and the death rate in the Upper House until, I think, around 1912 that he had the opportunity to appoint enough Liberals to have a majority in the Senate. We tend to forget that, more often than not, the Government of the day in Ottawa has not had a majority of its partisans in the Senate. Prime Minister Diefenbaker found only a corporal's guard of aging Conservatives in the Senate, when he took office in 1957; but with vacancies to be filled, allowing that Senators are mortal like the rest of us and about six deaths occur each year, we will have a Conservative majority in the Senate about the year 1962. Thereafter, the balance will build up swiftly against the Liberals and in favour of the Conservatives and, unless something is done, we will have all the same old arguments again, about the Senate being one-sided.

I would not advocate, in any way, an elective Senate--an idea with absolutely no merit in it at all--except to point out in this unfolding story of the Senate, that elections do catch up with it.

The Fathers of Confederation had a clear enough idea of what they wanted in a Senate, and the general argument for a Second Chamber is, I think, fully valid. It was interesting to me, a few weeks ago, when I was in New Zealand, a country that not long ago abolished its Second Chamber, there is much serious discussion about restoring it, as a balance to the House of Representatives and a useful branch of Parliament. I do not think there is much chance of this, but it is possible, and it gives an opportunity to make the irreverent suggestion that if New Zealand wants its Upper House back, Canada has one that does not enjoy high esteem, and probably could be spared.

Sir John A. Macdonald defined the Senate in these words: "It must be an independent house, having a free action on its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, and preventing any hasty and ill-considered legislation which may come from that body, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people." We should remember that the idea of the Senate as a guardian against demagogic acts and programs coming from the House of Commons, was an idea peculiar to the time in which the Canadian Confederation was born. At that time, there was considerable distrust of the mob and the word "democracy" had a flavour of disrepute about it, especially among those who looked across the border and observed the growing turmoil of American affairs that were heading into a bloody and unnecessary civil war. The memory of 1776 and of the American Revolution, was stronger then, and the impression had not been completely erased by the philosophic rationalizations of the political scientists, that it had been mainly conducted by the rabble. The idea of a calm, sober, independent Upper House is found, therefore, in the Canadian constitution and, indeed, in almost every other modern constitution. I would not quarrel with it--the idea, that is. It is a good idea gone wrong. The Senate has become a stagnant backwater, a political swamp into which a good many good men have disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again.

The question is how to make it work. I would not dispute, for a moment, all that has been said about how valuable the Senate is in committee work, how many conscientious members it has, how much money the Senate has saved the country through spotting mistakes made by the Commons, and so on. All this is true; equally it is true that the same services could probably be obtained better and more cheaply in other ways.

The Senate is an independent house? How often has the Senate made the front page in the past twenty years by saying no to something of major, policy importance that is sent to it from the House of Commons? The answer is, not at all. At the risk of inciting a disturbance of the peace in Ottawa, I would like to see the Senate really dig its heels in and save the Government and the Commons from some of their mistakes. The Senate could, in fact, have changed the course of our history, perhaps even saved the St. Laurent Government, if it had turned back the Trans-Canada pipeline measure, on the grounds of taking a "sober, second thought". Where were these alert, calm, judicious elders of our politics then? They were exactly where they have been during all our recent political crises, waiting for the final bell to ring.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the Senate can save a Government of the people from mistakes. That was the plain hope and intention of the Fathers of Confederation, and I would make a key criticism of the Senate that explains why it fails to perform the basic function for which it was created--it simply does not possess the resources of information by which it can do the work it is intended to do. I think Senator Roebuck will agree with this, and in any case, I will quote a former Senate leader of his who said: "It is not possible for a senator to receive the information which he is entitled to receive. . . . To be able to give a full explanation of every measure that comes before us would require far more ability and knowledge than I think any one person possesses, unless he be a superman."

The Senate operates, in this complex day and age, without sufficient sources of information for an important branch of government. This is the real secret of the failure of the Senate, and the reason why it has steadily declined in prestige, why the pages of the Senate hansard are littered with complaints that no one loves the Senate in these days.

The remedy for this state of affairs is relatively simple. It lies within the power of the Senate as it is constituted today. Talk about "free action of its own", as Sir John A. said, in referring to the Senate. It does not even select its own leader. The Senate has sufficient authority of its own, fully adequate constitutional status, to organize itself for the task of dealing with legislation, but the fact is that it has never done so.

I confess that I have written some speeches myself for Senators, in the days when I was in the Press Gallery in Ottawa--an activity that made a negligible contribution to the quality and reader interest of the debates. I mention this to illustrate the depths to which the Senate has gone, because it lacks its own adequate sources of information. The chief reason why the Senate has never contributed a single creative idea to the solution of any serious problem in our whole history is that it has failed to organize itself with information, research, study and discussion to arrive at conclusions on complicated problems. That's basically the reason why the Senate does not, in fact, know what's going on in the country, or in the world.

Senators often complain that the public and the press do not pay much attention to them. In my time in the Press Gallery in Ottawa, the upper chamber had reached the extreme and desperate state of employing a newspaper reporter to report its proceedings to make them available to all newspapers. All it needs to do is to deserve public attention, and it will get it.

The remedy, I suggest, is internal organization. The Senate should appoint its own leader, transforming this position from that of a junior member of the Cabinet into a post of high prestige and independence. Once that is done, the Government should see that, not one, but three, four, or even five or six Cabinet portfolios be assigned to the Senate. I realize that none of the top portfolios could be held in the Senate, but half a dozen cabinet ministers there would be required to see that the Government program is carried through. But, you may say, this invites deadlocks over important legislation. Not at all. Let the Senate pick itself up off the floor, organize itself, begin to act, as it was intended to act, as an independent branch of Parliament, giving us good, informed, sober second thoughts on national policy. This doctrine has to be reconciled with the basic principle that the House of Commons is the true seat of sovereignty, and it must inevitably prevail. If there is any doubt about this basic principle, then this is where a clear-cut constitutional amendment is required. As a layman, I do not think it is necessary. In fact, I think that Senate reform along the lines I am suggesting is quite feasible within the constitution as it is, and that it will save the Senate and produce the results desired.

We should take some notice here of various proposals made for the Senate in the past, many of them entirely off the mark. The idea that the provinces should control some of the appointments has been made, from time to time. It had one distinguished advocate in the former Prime Minister, Mr. St. Laurent. The friends of the splinter parties, that shine and fade like glowworms on our political landscape, think that if they can capture a provincial legislature, send a handful of members of the House of Commons, they, too, should have a few Senators. I regard this as the dream stuff of politics, having no merit in it and, in any case, impossible to realize within our constitution. It would be wrong to interlock the legislative authorities of the separate federal and provincial fields of our constitution, and I don't think we should try it. It would add nothing.

Should the Senate be elected? This is another mirage. It really makes no difference whether the Senators arrive in the upper house by election or, as now, by appointment through a somewhat complicated and more or less secret process based upon the office of Prime Minister and subject to the final seal of the Prime Minister himself. I will go into this matter in a little more detail, if I have the time here today, but I wish to say first that the greatest boon to the Senate would be a system of retirement on pension, possibly pegged at the age limit of 75 years, with an optional retirement at 70. This suggestion is one that arouses the most heat and the least light in the debates of the Senate, but there is no doubt the weight of evidence is strongly on the side of pensioning off Senators when they reach a graceful age of retirement.

One immediate advantage in this would be that the Senate itself would come to be regarded less as a political pension scheme, and more as an effective branch of Parliament.

Here we come down to the heart of the matter. Make the Senate an "effective branch of Parliament"? This the Senate alone can do. Occasionally we have had arguments, in some newspapers and some magazines that should know better, that the way to reform the Senate is to appoint better Senators, and usually this is taken to mean non-political Senators. My view is that what the Senate needs is not fewer but more politicians, and by this I mean politicians who will work in the practice of politics as a full-time profession. That's what the job should be; that's what too few Senators make it. I call the attention of the Senate to the fact that it is quite contrary to the spirit and, perhaps, the letter of the Parliament of Canada Act that its members should be engaged in practically every type of normal Canadian activity, as directors of companies, as practicing lawyers, as practicing this or that, as private business men, and so on--when their oath of office requires them to dedicate themselves to the public business and the public welfare.

Let me say that we have a good many hard-working Senators. It is an honour to be appointed to the Senate. It is an honour that should be borne with a sense of dedication to public service, not as a reward, not as a substitute for some order of chivalry which Canada lacks, and certainly not as the provision of a prestige address in the National Capital from which to pursue clients and expand one's private business.

The Senate, so a distinguished figure no longer in our public life, once told me, is composed of persons who are appointed too young, and others who are appointed too old. The line-up of suppliants for appointment to the Senate, if I am not mistaken, stretches right from the door of the Prime Minister's office to the middle of the Rocky Mountain. I see no reason why the present system of appointments should be changed, though the appointments should rest on the grounds that a Senator is ready to take up a career in public service and give his time and energy to it as long as he is able. There is nothing wrong, in my view, with that proposition.

These are my random views on the Senate of Canada, and I am obliged to the Empire Club for inviting me here and according me your attention. I hardly need add that I realize the room is full of good material for Senate appointments, and I hope I have not discouraged anyone from feeling that he could give a very good account of himself, if he does land up in the Senate some day.

THANKE OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. Marvin Gelber.

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What Should be Done with the Canadian Senate

An Exchange of Views.
Senator Roebuck:
The history of the Senate in Canada. The complementary principles of representation by election in the Commons and by appointment in the Senate as fundamental to Canada's Constitution; frequently misunderstood and vastly important to Canada's national life both past and future. The importance of the provision for life appointment. The Parliamentary trends of recent years. The role of the Senate. How the Senate enriches the Councils of the nation and adds materially to the wisdom and effectiveness of Parliament.
Mr. Richardson:
Reform of the Senate. The situation in which the Senate becomes an annex to one or other party. Another look at the origins of the Senate and what the Fathers of Confederation intended. The Senate now, a "political swamp into which a good many good men have disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again." The question of how to make the Senate work. A suggested remedy of internal organization. Taking note of various proposals made for the Senate in the past. Making the Senate an "effective branch of Parliament." The speaker's view of what the Senate needs.