Friday, December 15, 2006

History lessons for Cherniak

I don't entirely know how I feel about an elected Senate, but I will say this much. The arguments against Senate reform that I've seen thus far are generally pretty bad arguments.

My friend, Jason Cherniak, for instance, has been on a roll as of late trying to make plain his position on the move to alter the Senate. His most recent post plays on the concept of "responsible government." This concept is historical, and represents early debates within Upper and Lower Canada prior to Confederation about the way governments were to be run. I will charge that Cherniak introduces his very own special meaning of "responsible government," one that bears little to no relation to the actual meaning of "responsible government" in the Canadian context. This will be my second charge against his argument, and we'll get to it after my first charge is made plain: That Cherniak ignores Quebec history (and Alberta history), focusing exclusively on Ontario history, to make his case.

Something that is typically overlooked in Canada are two separate rebellions that sought for independence for Canada from the British Crown. Unlike in the U.S., both rebellions were unsuccessful in accomplishing their primary purpose, although they were successful with respect to some secondary purposes.

In 1837, under Louis Joseph Papineau, Lower Canadians (Quebeckers) rose up against the government. Motivation for the uprising included age-old hatred of British rule in Quebec, made concrete and pressing by the rule of the Chateau Clique. The "Clique" was a governor-appointed group of people who were "advisors" to the governor, but who essentially ruled the day-to-day lives of Quebeckers. This was made worse when the Clique managed to take control (by being appointed) of the Legislative Council, the upper house in Lower Canada. Their mission was to anglicize the French-Canadian population by replacing the Roman Catholic church with Anglican churches, and trying to replace French civil law with a British common law system.

As it stood then, the Governor was appointed (and was always a Brit), as was the Legislative Council , and the Executive Council (the third branch, something like the governor's "cabinet"). This left the elected Legislative Assembly with little to no effective power. All these appointments left Quebeckers furious, especially given the aims of the appointees. It came to a boiling point in 1837, with open rebellion led by Papineau.

It is hard to figure out just what, exactly, steamed them so. I don't think anyone will disagree that appointing the governor is a bad idea. But would Quebeckers have been all right with an appointed Legislative Council, so long as the governor (and maybe executive council) had to be a member of the Legislative Assembly first (and, therefore, elected)?

The Senate reform bill leaves open whether Senators will be elected by the rest of us, or whether it will be decided by the provinces, with them being free to have either elections, or appointments by provincial parliament/legislative assembly, or by the Premier of the province, or by some other way. It would be strange to see that Quebeckers, who are aware of their history, would not opt for at least the second set of options--that of having Quebec senators chosen by Quebeckers, or by their representatives. It is only ignorance of Quebec history that would lead one to promote the status quo with respect to the Senate.

So that's my first charge against Cherniak. It may be true that Upper Canadian (or Ontario) history suggests a federally-appointed Senate would be more consistent with their particular vision for "responsible government," but it is hardly true of Quebec. To ignore the other founding nation is to ignore one reason for a reformed Senate.

Back to history: When Papineau led the charge against British rule in Quebec, the Canadian government chose to send troops from Upper Canada to help quell the Lower Canadian rebellion. This was an opportunity that Willion Lyon Mackenzie was aware he had to seize. As troops left Upper Canada, Mackenzie urged farmers to storm an armoury to take guns and ammunition to begin their own parallel rebellion. The farmers agreed, and Mackenzie managed to sack the storehouse and arm his troops. It was the only success in this particular story, the story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion, or, as it is sometimes referred to (with not just a hint of ridicule) the "bar fight on Yonge Street."

The causes of this conflict were similar to those in Lower Canada. Mackenzie and Papineau were cut of the same cloth. Neither was a fan of British rule, and neither could stomach having their government be run essentially by appointment, with table-scraps reserved for the elected lower house. Upper Canada had its own version of the Chateau Clique, the Family Compact. They, too, ran things, and they, too, were the cause of much anger and resentment.

Alas, neither rebellion succeeded in their primary aim of shaking off the British yoke. Papineau made his way to the U.S. and then to France to plead his case for military support in their uprising, but neither the U.S. President, nor the French crown would have it. Mackenzie, meanwhile, escaped with a handful of troops to Navy Island. They declared it the Republic of Canada on December 13, a republic that lasted for exactly one month, being crushed by British forces on January 13.

But both had moderate successes. Part of their mission included fighting for "responsible government." Here we get to my second charge against Cherniak. Responsible government, in Canada, means that all members of the government are ultimately accountable. They can be held to account by the people, through elections, or by other elected representatives through votes of no confidence, and other measures. Its early specific meaning was that the appointed governor could be made to resign by the elected legislative bodies. This was what Lord Durham, in his report following the Rebellions, suggested as a way to ease tensions. This is what he explicitly meant. But the concept has changed somewhat. Currently, what it means is that every member of government, including appointed members like Senators, can be made to adhere to the will of the people either directly by the people (elections), or by their representatives.

If the Senate has any effective power, as it surely does, then responsible government means that they can be held to account. The Senate, as it currently stands, is a violation of the concept of responsible government. It is not consistent with it, because no Senator can be fired, or be held to account in any way but by public opinion (and this only amounts to being shamed).

Having Senators elected by the people is only one option on the table. I agree with Cherniak that Upper and Lower Canadian history does not suggest this as the best possible way to proceed (although Albertan history begs to differ, a history that Cherniak also fails to even mention). What I believe is the best lesson to take from our history is this. Provinces, through their elected lower house, should make the decision on their own as to the make-up of the federal upper house.

In Ontario, this would mean either that the Premier appoint Ontario Senators (possibly with advice from his cabinet or caucus, or from all the sitting MPPs), or that MPPs, as a whole, come to the decision together. One possibility is that Ontario decides to leave it in the hands of the sitting Prime Minister. In Quebec, I don't think we can decide between either direct elections or appointments by Quebec representatives, but one thing is crystal clear. No one will convince me, nor anyone else, I wager, who has more than a high school understanding of Quebec history, that the Prime Minister should appoint the Senators. Whatever system is preferred, it will not be the current one. Only a repudiation of early Lower Canadian history could lead anyone to this conclusion (which is why Jean Charest's recent comments strike me as totally bizarre. It would be a "radical change" to Canada's system, but radical change is hardly a reason for Quebeckers to think it a bad idea...). It would have to be more recent history, and the fact that a significant number of recent Prime Ministers have come from la belle province, that would lead anyone to prefer the current system. Meanwhile in Alberta, and most obviously, their history points in only one direction: The people of Alberta directly elect their senators.

I can't decide whether this is merely political, or whether some people genuinely believe that Senate reform is a bad idea. Clearly, provincial history is on the side of reform. This, of course, does not mean that we should reform the Senate. Just because our past history points in one direction does not mean that we should follow that path. Times may have changed, and there may be other considerations, considerations about the current state of play, and the possible repercussions of changing a system so entrenched, that need to be taken account of. But an argument from history is an argument for Senate reform, even if that reform is not necessarily a popularly-elected Senate.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jason said...

I think I see your error. The problem was that the executive was appointed from the appointed upper houses. The charge for responsible government was essentially that the elected lower house should form the cabinet and that said cabinet should be based on the winning party in the election.

When you get to 1867 and an official constitution, there was a question as to whether the upper house should be elected so as to be accountable. Sir John A. argued for such elections in the province of Canada. However, as I quoted on my blog, he changed his mind when it came time for Confederation. The reason was that the elected upper house ultimately interfered in the accountability of the lower house and its elected government. As a result, he decided to create a body of "sobre second thought" instead of a second House to compete with the first.

Once you elect the upper chamber, you cannot help but take power away from the lower chamber. That is why such a plan is ultimately contrary to the principles of responsible government.

I will admit to a bit of a slight of hand here. I am joining "responsible government" with "representation by population". However, I believe that this is a natural thing to do when you are comparing the House and the Senate.

3:05 PM  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

Here's the real issue, as I see it, and the real point of the post. What I disagree with, in your reading of history, is not that an appointed upper house is an idea contrary to Canadian history, but that the Senate, as it currently stands, does stand convicted of violating our early history.

This is, I think, my main and only point. I am not sure if I would get behind an elected Senate. I think I would, however, get behind the idea that the Provinces should have the ultimate say. This means that some provinces can choose to keep the system as it is, with the PM appointing senators for that province, while others, like Alberta, could have popular provincial elections to choose their own senators. This, I think, is the best lesson.

I agree with John A.'s worries. An elected upper house probably *would* interfere, and probably agitate to propose their own legislation. I do not think this would be a good outcome of Senate reform. But I do believe in reform. I have no respect for the Senate, and I suspect that my lack of respect is shared by most Canadians, because they are a body of people essentially given a peerage by the PM for reasons having everything to do with party loyalty, and very little to do with ability or merit.

3:22 PM  
Anonymous PCmarkg said...

This is directed toward supporters of an appointed senate.

Responsible government is code for authoritarianism, which was needed to hold disparate colonies together in 1867.

More recently, considering our 1% victory in the Quebec Referendum, significant support for nationalist sentiment in Alberta and Newfoundland, and that the guy who wrote the Reform party platform is now our Prime Minster.... Keeping an appointed senate?

As doctor Phil would say, How’s that workin for ya.

4:18 PM  

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