Monday, October 19, 2009

Live-blogging the Quebec conference #10

Wednesday, October 19, 1864:

Not the Senate again? Yes.

The provinces endorse, with Prince Edward Island opposed, Premier Tupper's proposal that in filling the first Senate, priority will be given to members of existing provincial upper houses. But will they do this by lot, or maybe by rules to be determined later? Just before the afternoon break, Jonathan McCully, newspaperman and Liberal member of the Nova Scotia upper house, presents the winning formula. He proposes that in appointing members to the first Senate, the federal government shall take advice from each provincial government and give due regard to oppositon members "so that all political parties be as nearly as possible fairly represented."

This pretty much ends the weeklong Senate debate. In formally settling how the first senators will be chosen, they have accepted the original motion for Senate seats: life appointments in the power of the federal cabinet. It's only in filling the first senate that the feds need to listen to the provinces or balance party standings.

Why an appointive Senate? Indeed why an appointive Senate virtually without debate on an elective one? And why put it in the gift of the feds instead of the provinces? Well, because they were parliamentary democrats.

They know that in the 1780s the American framers plumped for an upper house in which all states, not all citizens, would be equally represented, and where the states will control the choice of Senators. They reject that. The American framers wanted equality among the states, but they also wanted an elite, quasi-aristocratic Senate with real powers to counter the possibly too democratic House of Representatives.

They got one. In the 1860s the American Senate is growing in power and influence. Senators, currently appointed by state governments, will soon be elected by each state's voters, but the unrepresentativeness of the Senate is maintained. Small population states have just as many senators as large population ones. In Britain, by contrast, the power of the unrepresentative House of Lords is declining; power is shifting steadily to the (more) representative Commons.

The Canadians know about powerful upper houses -- the upper house of the United province of Canada has been elective since 1856 -- and they prefer the British trend. They plump to have a weak, largely advisory upper house in future. And having its members appointive rather than elective is what confirms the upper house's weakness. Canadian Senators will never have the legitimacy to withstand the will of the democratically-elected Commons. Since they are not even chosen by their provinces, they cannot even claim authority as defenders of provincial interests in Ottawa. The consensus of the conference is that upper houses must defer to lower houses, the ones that are truly accountable to the population.

How seriously the confederation-makers take this matter will be confirmed by the next resolution. With the Senate debate done, George Brown moves for strict representation by population in the Commons, with seats adjusted every ten years to reflect population changes in the decennial census.

The idea of a truly representative house, with strict equality of voters, is something Quebec and Ontario have been struggling with for more than a decade. The representatives of French Quebec, sure to be in the minority in the new federal house, have accepted rep-by-pop -- but only in exchange for federalism. They can accept the likelihood of being outvoted in the federal house, because the local matters vital to French Quebec will be delegated to the provincial legislature of Quebec.

This is really the key to confederation. The Canadian coalition had been founded on this deal. The principle had been discussed and endorsed at Charlottetown in September. There is no alternative on offer. Brown's motion passes. But Prince Edward Island has voted no.

They adjourn on that disagreement, and it looks like they may be dropping Prince Edward Island out of confederation. More tomorrow.
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