“An Elective Legislative Council,” The Globe (13 April 1852)

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Date: 1852-04-13
By: The Globe
Citation: “An Elective Legislative Council,” The Globe (13 April 1852).
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We are glad to observe that the contemplated ministerial measure, to make the Upper House elective, does not find that favour with the Reform press which we feared it would; also we earnestly hope the Ministry may yet be induced to give it up. A writer in a Western paper says, that in favour of making the Council electives, “little need be adduced.” And why? Because—“a settled opinion of its practicability prevails among the great mass of the people.” There is no doubt that such an opinion very generally prevails; but it has arisen from the absurd abuse which a portion of the press has been continually heaping on the Legislative Council, as now constituted; the real merits of the question have not been sifted, but when they are, we are well satisfied that public opinion will take a very different direction.

What is this cry for an elective Council founded upon? One party asks for the change as a barrier against Democracy, while, strange to say, another asks it to increase the Democratic influence. The Tories say, the Council, as now constituted, is the tool of the Democratic majority—some Radicals say it is the tool of the Government of the day, forgetting that the Democracy now control the Government. It is clear to us that those who ask for the change as a Conservative measure have sound argument to aver for their motion; but that those who ask it as a Democratic move are in a very false position. A member of the Legislative Council, who favours the change, writes:—“If an elective Legislative Council is a Tory, in contradistinction to a Reform measure, then have parties changed places, and our opponents are in possession of ground which has hitherto been peculiarly our own.” No doubt of this. When the Colonial Office appointed a Governor to rule without regard to public opinion; when that Governor flung himself into the arms of a clique, and filled the Legislative Council with the creatures of that clique; and when the Council so filled stood out against every popular measure of Reform—the removal of so unreasonable a barrier to progressive legislation become naturally an eagerly-sought reform of the Liberal party.—But when the old Colonial-Office system was exploded; when the Governor had to bow here to popular opinions, as his Royal Mistress has in England; when not he, but his Cabinet—the elected of the people—practically obtained the selection of the Legislative Councillors; when, by the influence of these changes, the Upper House, once the barrier to public opinion, became its sympathizing agent,—of course “parties changed places.” The popular will at once obtained full away,—the crows in the Tory rookeries became alarmed at the sweeping reforms which threatened them,—and they sought some protection from popular opinion. The construction of the two Houses, they found, gave it easy and direct control over legislation; and they sought to mar that control by new fetters. Suddenly the Tories, who had been the panegyrists of the Legislative Council, became its bitterest foes,—they sneered at it, and ridiculed it, and demanded to have it made elective. But the very reason which made them denounce it, should have rallied the Liberals around the Legislative Council. Their objection was that it did the bidding of the popular will, but what else should it do?

It is doing the very work of our opponents to resort to a second elective Chamber. It is simply putting an end to Responsible Government—bringing back the old abortion of an irresponsible Executive. If anything would open the eyes of the Liberal advocates of the measure to its true character, the tone of their Tory coadjutors should do so. After showing that the Legislative Council was intended to “control the democratic element,” the Tory Transcript of Montreal, proceeds to prove that it has not fulfilled its mission, that it offers no barrier to the popular will, that it has become merely a portion of “a single democratic tyranny of the most inartificial construction.” He then goes on to show the advantage which the adoption of the elective system would bring, by the example of the United States:—

“The founders of the United States saw this consequence, [the democratic tyranny of the Canadian system] and they guarded against it by the institution of an elective senate for the central government, and elective senates for the several states.—They knew how vain and fickle public opinion is, and how necessary is antagonism for the good working of any government. Accordingly they constituted their senates elective, but elected for a different time, and in different modes, and proportions numerically. Thus, on an elective basis, the senate can, at any time, take a firm stand, and appeal to the deliberate good sense of the country, and control, without imputation and without interference, either the President or House of Representatives.”

The Tory Gazette of Montreal speaks even more plainly:—

“We believe the Gazette was the first paper to advance it as a Conservative reform, and to advocate the merits when brought forward by the British American League. Time was, when we considered the change as one to be combatted at all hazards, and were we to-morrow placed in the same circumstances as those which existed previous to the Rebellion of 1837, and the Union of the Provinces, we should as strongly oppose it again. Tempora mutantur et nos mutantur in illis. To-day we agree with the Globe in calling this a Tory reform.—When we opposed it, it was because the appoluted Council furnished a check upon the democratic tendencies of the Assembly. It has ceased to do so now: and we look to an Elective Council properly constituted as calculated to furnish a remedy.”

This is a fair statement of the case. If the Reformers of Upper Canada think the present House of Representatives too progressive, too violent (as the Tories do) then undoubtedly to erect a second chamber, elected for a long term, is the way to clog its movements. But if they seek greater progress than is now made, more firmness, legislative and executive, they may remove the Upper House altogether, but never make it elective. The day may come when such a clog would be desirable; British Responsible Government without the prestige of a monarchy and peerage, and without the social restraints of older countries, is yet but an experiment; but so far the experiment has more than met expectation, and it would be worse than folly to pull it down ere some good cause is found for it.

But would this second elective chamber destroy Responsible Government? Of course it would. The moment the two houses differed in political sentiment, the moment the Executive would be irresponsible. Both Houses would equally represent public opinion—the one would say yes and the other nay, and Messrs. Hincks & Co. or Sir Allan McNab & Co., as the case might be, would laugh at them both and hold on to office. Legislation would stop. Oh, says some advocates of the measure—“that is a very extreme case. If both houses were elective, as a general thing, they must agree.” By no means; the contrary is proved in the United States. It is to be hoped that the French Canadians will not always continue to vote as one man; but if they do, other combinations will undoubtedly arise to upset the present disproportion of parties. It is not in the nature of things that a wide disproportion can long exist under free institutions; the minority soon learn to shape their measures so as to meet the public voice. When that day arrives in Canada, and it is not far off, a lower house elected for four years, and an Upper for six or eight years, would frequently be in opposition to each other. In the States, with annual and biannual elections, and with their strict party system the dead lock often arises, how much more frequently then would it arise under our long Parliaments and comparative individual independence of party trammels?

“But,” says our opponent, “you may make the Ministry removeable by the vote of either house, and give them power to dissolve either when a dead lock ensues.” In that case your long term would be a farce; the power of the Government, which the Radical advocates say they wish to curb, would be greater than now; and the restraint on democracy, which the Tory advocates wish to strengthen, would be far less than now. But let us try to work it out. The Reformers we shall suppose in power; they have a majority in the Upper House, but a vote of want of confidence in them is declared by the Lower House. They must resign or change the state of things; they dissolve the Lower House and appeal to the people. The people we shall suppose sustain their representatives against the Ministry, and the Reformers must resign. The Tories come in, but the Upper House is against them; they in turn must dissolve it; the numbers are smaller, the constituencies larger, the men different—what if the majority returned are Reformers? Shall the Tories again go out, and let the Reformers try their hand at another dissolution of the Lower House? And where should the see-saw end? The thing is absurd. You cannot unite British Ministerial responsibility with the Elective Senate of America.

But we are told, the members of both houses might be numerically the same, and elected by the same constituencies and for the same term. What advantage would the change confer in that case? If the two houses differed, the dead lock still would come; and if both were of the same political complexion, neither wing of the advocates of the change would obtain their end; the Ministry would have their majority and do their own will without other check than now exists—the popular voice would rule the Ministry, and the case of the Tories be as hopeless as now. The measure passed would be, as now, the measures of the Ministry—the Tories in one house would say amen to the work of the Tories in the other, and we fear so would the Reformers to their friends. The difference between this and the present system would only be that the change would be attended with enormous additional expense to the country—at least $120,000 a-year, probably $150,000, would be the price of this Reform which would effect no practical benefit under the sun.

We have never participated in the feeling of hostility and disrespect shown to the Upper House, by many of our cotemporaries. That there are men in it, who should not be there, and could not readily have got there by popular election, we admit.—But could not the same thing be said of the Lower House? Do we not see men there, Parliament after Parliament, who excite our wonder at their election? And is it not a fact, that in proportion to their numbers, the talent of the Upper House surpasses that of the Lower, at this very moment? And even then, for most of the inefficient members of the Council, are we not indebted to the days of yore? Nearly all the appointments of late years, have been men of ability and standing. And, after all, turn the present men adrift to-morrow and choose their successors by popular election—where are the hidden statesmen who would rise responsive to the call? The character of the body demands men of long experience, of education, of standing in the community, having a deep stake in the Province; but in so young a country, peopled as it has been, mainly by men seeking fortune in a new world, to find such persons is not easy. But every year brings its remedy. The country is rising rapidly in wealth—our academies and Colleges are diffusing high education—popular institutions are drawing out the talents of the land. Ere many years elapse, men may be found in Canada who by their personal characters will equally command public respect and confidence, whether chosen directly by the people or indirectly by the agency of a responsible Cabinet. We can understand the heat of the Tories,—we cannot understand the hast of Reformers to pull down a Constitution which gives them full and direct power. After fighting thirty years to obtain a position, and finding it to realize all our expectations—why shall we fling it away without one solid complaint, to run after a theory? Let us take it easy. The Reformers of Upper Canada have serious battles toc fight yet, or we are the more mistaken. Let us ponder how we shall overcome the barriers now in the way of our principles, rather than waste our strength in breaking down the system which at least has given us all the ameliorations we have obtained.

Let Liberals keep ever in mind, that all the reform they have ever gained, has been the fruit of our present system; that since the full establishment of Responsible Government, the Legislative Council has been with them, and against Toryism; that there is no practical reform they want which the present system will not bring them; that if there are disadvantages connected with it, there are many advantages; that it is, in the lowest view, a Court of review for all measures, from which many admirable suggestions have emanated, and by which not a few bad bills [the Peterborough Rectory Bill among them] have been stopped. And if in addition to all this, they will consider that the Upper House as now constituted, costs but five thousand pounds a year, while an elective Senate would coast seven or eight times the sum, we think they will demand some better reason for hazarding the change, than has yet been given.

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