Sunday, February 07, 2010

120 Year Old Reason Why The Senate Gets A Bad Rap

When newspapers did justice to their role, there exists a record of a century old speech that echoes to this day, demanding rational thought not popular whim. That though an elected Senate would garner the Upper House more public approval, that approval would only derive from an increase in public awareness, not an increase in efficiency.

From the Montreal Gazette on the 28th of April 1890 one Senator J.C.C. Abbott is recorded to have responded to critics about the functions of the Senate and possible reforms to the institution. Of the many valid points he made, I think perhaps the most important is this; that the Senate is an object of criticism because it is the institution Canadians know the least about.

Senator Abbott on page 8, right column:

"They would approve of us if we talked for days and days without any results, probably, but the quiet, unobtrusive labor which this house goes through in perfecting and supervising the legislation of the country, I have no doubt they would appreciate if they knew of it.”
Where the House of Commons is highly partisan their debates often reflect such conflict, translating to greater media attention and thus increased public awareness of the Lower House's value. The Senate on the other hand all but reviews legislation in a closet, with very little press reporting its important work. So where it is often cited as a benefit to the Senate that intense partisanship is absent from its decor, it remains a cost, because as conflict goes, so too does the media and public attention. And within our flourishing democracy, where the ascending importance of public perception demands headlines and soundbytes the Senate is at an extreme disadvantage.

Senator Abbott explaining the popularity of the House of Commons as its form and substance appeal to popular sentiment, again on page 8, right column:
"The public admire speeches; they like discussions, especially if they are a trifle warm. They like political questions, with which they habitually deal themselves as, matter of private conversation. They hear nothing of the kind here, or only at rare intervals... It is is important to a man in another place, who has shortly to go before the people, to denounce the Government, if he happens to be in Opposition, for their extravagance and corruption; and if he happens to be on the Government side of the House to show how unpatriotic and corrupt the Opposition are. These are two subjects, fertile in themselves, and expanded to a degree that is almost impossible to calculate except by those who will go through the labor of wading through Hansard."
And though I could further posit my own opinion on Senate reform, I dedicate this post to that of Senator Abbott, and as such I conclude with his final remarks.
"No. What after all does this discussion result in, now that we have got through with it. We have had offered to us various modes of electing this House, but we have not had suggested to us any reason whatever that I can see for changing our constitution. ... We have been here ready to perform all the duties entrusted to us, and it is admitted on all hands that we do those duties well. What more can be required of us than that? If we do not happen to attract public attention much, what matters it? I say to hon. gentlemen let us do our work- let us guard the legislation of the country, let us revise it, let us correct it, let us amend it, let us reject it, in the interest of the country, as we are required to do. Let us take care that no temporary fit of prejudice or passion, injurious to our country or disadvantageous to our interests is allowed to force a measure through this Parliament without giving to the people a further opportunity for considering it.
After acknowledging that the Senate must persevere with little public acknowledgement of its great work, Senator Abbott modestly advises other Senators of his day and one can only hope their modern counterparts take heed:
If we continue to perform those duties with diligence, if we continue to exercise with dignity and efficiency the functions which the constitution entrusts to us, we may safely leave our reputation, our services, and our character to the appreciation of our country, which we love and revere, and from which we shall receive all the recognition we desire, of our performance of the high functions of senators of this Dominion."

Below is the rest of Senator Abbott's speech as presented by the Montreal Gazette on April 28th 1890.


Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

Good post. I like appointed Senate for reasons cited, and because it lacks democratic legitimacy, so democratic House can override. My only "reform" would be to double or triple size of Senate so more interesting partisans end up there, rather than staffing positions of greater responsibility in Govt (boards, ambassadors, etc.), where they can do real harm if underqualified. said...

Hmmm that's an interesting suggestion. I think it definitely has value as it would produce a more balanced outcome, however I don't think it would be politically feasible in the current political context. A portion of Canadians who are opposed to the institution would not be in favour of more members just to offset those who are unqualified. A scenerio of non-partisan committees selecting Senators would I think be more possible. An idea I should note that goes back to the 1890s as well.

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