William Thorsell’s Senate

In an article slamming Stephen Harper’s proposals for reform of the Canadian Senate (Saturday’s Globe and Mail), William Thorsell pulls out all the stops.

Harper’s elective Senate would “encourage delay and obstruction of legislation by factions with Senate seats (separatists, religious groups, [and] cantankerous individuals beyond the discipline of a caucus in the House of Commons).”

“Separatists, religious groups and cantankerous individuals!” Well, no right-thinking person would want to turn the government of Canada over to separatists and cranks. But who is Mr. Thorsell really talking about when he speaks of members “beyond the discipline of a caucus in the House of Commons”? He is talking about what is usually called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

It is famously said about the British Parliamentary system that its most precious feature is the security it affords the opposition. Thorsell is calling for the opposition’s suppression. In his peculiar vision, parliamentary government is supposed to keep the stream of legislation rolling along with less “delay.” More laws! More laws! Less “obstruction.” Less noise from all opposed.

John A. Macdonald put the case for the parliamentary opposition this way. He was speaking in the debates of 1865 on the Quebec Resolutions. “[We] … enjoy the privileges of constitutional liberty according to the British system … We will enjoy here that which is the great test of constitutional freedom – we will have the rights of the minority respected. In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty and safe from the tyrannies of a single tyrant or of an unbridled democracy that the rights of minorities are regarded.” By “the minority” and “minorities,” Macdonald meant the political groups and parties on the opposition benches, the groups and individuals that disagreed with the governing majority.

It’s truly surprising how little understanding Thorsell has of the Westminster system. The Senate or Upper Chamber – call it by whatever name – has a vital role to play in querying, stalling or vetoing legislation when a prime minister attempts to use his clout in the Commons to ride roughshod over dissenters.

The importance Macdonald attached to the Senate’s obligations in this regard is shown by his reluctance to countenance appointment of additional senators to break a deadlock between legislative houses. (There was no provision for appointment of additional senators in the Quebec Resolutions.) He said:

“No ministry in Canada in the future can do what they have done in Canada before – they cannot, with the view of carrying any measure or of strengthening the party, attempt to overrule the independent opinion of the upper house by filling it with its partisans and political supporters.”

Macdonald was the leader of the majority party in the provincial assembly. He was in his prime. He could expect to lead the Conservatives, the province, and if all went as expected and hoped for, the new country, for years to come. Yet here he in the debates on the new constitution defending the rights of the opposition parties, that is, the Independents, the Liberals, and the Rouges. And to secure those rights he wants the new nation to have an effective upper house, with powers secured by the law.

Thorsell tries to spice up his argument with a little anti-Americanism. An elected Senate “would import much of the American political dynamic (or disease).” But it’s a dreary essay. He is looking forward to the Senate’s demise.


2 Responses to “William Thorsell’s Senate”

  1. 1 Marcos Paulo Reis May 5, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Hello Professor Ajzenstat,

    Interesting point of view. Would you have any comments on Mr. Thorsell assertion that “Canada’s democracy is of an Edmund Burke kind – an accountable mandate for a program writ large by representatives with a fair degree of autonomy and discretion operating within a disciplined team.”?

    This is what George Brown had to say about an elected second chamber. “I have always been opposed to a second elective chamber, and I am so still, from the conviction that two elective houses are inconsistent with the right working of the British parliamentary system.”

    Brown goes on to say that “what was most feared was that the legislative councilors would be elected under party responsibilities; that a partisan spirit would show itself in the chamber.”

    Would be fair to say that this is also the fear of Mr. Thorsell? If Senators become controlled by the party machine would that actually limit their independence and capacity to voice dissent?

    If the todays house of commons is anything to go by, party discipline would trump independent voices. One only have to look at the case of Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey, that got boot out of caucus and from the party for voicing dissent, to see what would happen to Senators that try to “speak their mind”.

    Brown was clearly concern about the prospect of “re-election”. “Suppose you appoint [or elect] for nine years, what will be the effect? For the last three or four years of their term they would be anticipating its expiry, and anxiously looking to the administration of the day for reappointment; and the consequence would be that a third of the members would be under the influence of the executive [or party machine].”

    Brackets added by me.

    Would that be the very issue that we observe today in the American Congress re-elections?

    How can the Red Chamber be independent if it has to run for elections every 8/9 years? In order to run for elections senators will have to appease party operatives and mandarins, compromising their independence for “second thought”.

    Would you elaborate on the impact of direct elections on the roles and responsibilities of the Red Chamber?

    Would a Red Chamnber appointed by provincial assemblies for life be more in line if the West minister Model?


    Marcos Paulo Reis

  1. 1 Macdonald Laurier Institute » Blog Archive » William Thorsell’s Senate Trackback on May 3, 2010 at 8:51 am

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