Historica-Dominion Institute on the Canadian Senate

The Historica-Dominion Institute publishes a daily note about what happened in Canadian history “on this day.” In the National Post, you’ll find it on the diversions page with the crosswords.

Until recently On This Day has been a pretty sober affair. But someone’s having fun with it now. Here’s how it read on September 27, 2011:

“Sept 27, 1990. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney invoked a never-before-used-section of the Constitution to appoint eight extra senators, so that the Liberal majority in the Senate could no longer block passage of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation. It’s the old saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them. And if you can’t join them, evoke constitutional clauses to fundamentally change their makeup and get your way. You know, that old chestnut.”

Self-serving politicians. “That old chestnut.” Always good for a laugh. But, I have to admit that Mulroney’s action looks shoddy.

John A. Macdonald would have thought so.

The Quebec Resolutions of 1774 had no provision allowing appointment of extra senators. The omission was deliberate. In the debates on the Quebec Resolutions in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, Macdonald argued that the Quebec Resolutions would prevent ministries from attempting to overrule the independent opinion of the upper house by filling it with a number of its partisans.

“No ministry in Canada in future can do what they have done in Canada before – they cannot, with a view of carrying any measure or of strengthening the party, attempt to overrule the independent opinion of the upper house by filling it with a number of its partisans and political supporters. The provision in the constitution, that the Legislative Council shall consist of a limited number of members – that each of the great sections [of the federation] shall appoint twenty-four members and no more – will prevent the upper house from being swamped from time to time by the ministry of the day, for purpose of carrying purpose of carrying out their own scheme or pleasing their partisans. The fact of the government being prevented from exceeding a limited number will preserve the independence of the upper house and make it, in reality, a separate and distinct chamber, having a legitimate and controlling influence in the legislation of the country.” (John A. Macdonald, Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 6m 1865.)

At the London Conference 1866, before the Canada bill was presented to the British Parliament, the British government argued that appointment of extra senators was needed to prevent deadlock between the House of Commons and the Senate, and was not out of keeping with British parliamentary traditions. A defeat for Macdonald!

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