From Rampart to Rubble

Mr Gordon Gibson in his 2004 essay “Challenges In Senate Reform” underlined that one of the original intentions for the Senate was for it to “be the Canadian analogue to the House of Lords”.

At the time of Confederation, Canada did not have a “Noble class” which led Sir John A. to state “that these Senate worthies would surely be representative of the best of the colonies, “men of the people, from the people” ”. Gibson continues that Sir John A. argued “that these people would be drawn from “the best men in the country” and that this was guaranteed because the lower house and the whole world would condemn the appointments otherwise.”

Today, Sir John A’s prediction has turned into fact with the recent suite of Senate scandals (Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb, and Pamela Wallin).

The impact on public opinion has led to a large portion of the electorate to be in favor of abolishing the Senate. Each of the provinces, territories and federal government has laid out their positions on Senate reform and abolition in the frame of the hearing surrounding the Supreme Court reference on Senate reform.

If the tenents of abolishment win the day, the only “rampart to elected dictatorship” will have been turned to rubble.

Senate – Rampart against dictatorship

The first time that I heard someone mention that we, in Canada, live in a dictatorship, an elected dictatorship, was back in the 70’s in North Vancouver. Trudeau (pere) was in power and Western Canada was not very happy with his politics at the time. Today, it is with reference to Harper’s government and Eastern Canada is lamenting over this particular brand of politics.

In our electoral system, the “first past the post system” typically produces a majority government with less than 50% of the popular vote. The resulting majority government can be quite efficiency in passing legislation due to party discipline along with its majority in the House of Commons. This efficiency can come at the cost of limited debates both internally with the governing party and externally in the Commons and in public. As a result, a majority government, elected by a minority of voters, can be perceived as an “elected dictatorship”.

In this parliamentary context, I would expect that even a government with the best of intentions can slip into the tyranny of a “dictatorship”. The issues might be related to vision, ideology, dogmatism or simply “saving face”, but in the end any such issue will provide any majority government the challenge of dealing with the dilemma of weighing parliamentary democracy against turning quite dictatorial.

The only avenues, some feel, to mitigating the potential of any government to becoming an “elected dictatorship” is either through a proportional electoral system or a two ballot run-off electoral system.

However, it is very unlikely that any duly elected government, despite its stated good intentions, will ever change the “first past the post” electoral system. At the end of the day, the “first past the post” system brought them to power so why should they change it? Why should they even consider sharing power with some party holding a small number of seats and have views different that theirs?

In the Canadian parliamentary system, the only two avenues to counter an “elected dictatorship” is to petition the Queen (or Her Majesty’s representative – The Governor General) or the Senate.

Tradition and precedent dictates that the GG will not ever refuse any duly passed government legislation leaving only the Senate as the “rampart against dictatorship”.


“No nation should be under unchecked, single-chamber government … It must also be remembered that, under our system, the power of the Cabinet tends to grow at the expense of the House of Commons … The Senate is not so much a check on the House of Commons as it is upon the Cabinet, and there can be no doubt that its influence in this respect is salutary.”

(Sir Clifford Sifton, “The New Era in Canada”: 1917)

– gleaned from Wikipedia.