“Elective Institutions,” The Globe (31 October 1850)
By: The Globe
Citation: “Elective Institutions,” The Globe (31 October 1850).
The grand hobby of the republican agitators is the cry of “Elective Institutions—Elective Institutions.” With these people, Elective Institutions are the wondrous specific destined to cure Canada as by magic of all her ills, and make every man, woman and child in the country rich and happy. It is to be remarked that we are never told what are the ends to be achieved by these said Institutions—what abuses now existing, and not now remediable, are to be cured through their operation—what great measures, not now possible of attainment, might be rendered easy of accomplishment by overturning the existing form of government, and establishing a new one in its room. There is a wonderful desire to pull down—but we hear not one word of explanation as to the good to be effected by it.
We do not desire to avoid the discussion of this question. We should not hesitate to advocate any change in our Institutions, consistent with our connection with Great Britain, which can be shown to remedy any evil under which we now labour, or bring us any good we have not now, and cannot obtain. What we do object to is agitating for changes in the constitution without any definite object in view from these changes, or to gain objects which can be as well obtained under our present system. But we are quite prepared to overlook the absence of any case of necessity or expediency on the part of those who clamour for these changes, and carrying the war into the enemy’s camp, to show that not only have they no plea of advantage to urge for their favourite system, but that when the two systems—the American republican and the British constitutional—are weighed in the balance and tested by impartial judgement and the result of experience—that which we in Canada enjoy will be found to secure more perfectly than any other the great end of good, equal and economical government, and in the manner most favoured by the majority of the community.
The question of elective Institutions is presented to us under three separate issues—each having its admirers. Few persons advocate the whole of these issues, and it is to be remarked that a very great discordance of opinion exists among the elective-Institution-men as to the manner of carrying out any of them. The three propositions we allude to are these:—
1st. An Elective Governor General.
2nd. An Elective Legislative Council, or Upper House.
3rd. Elective Office-holders.
It is very clear that with the relinquishment of the tight to appoint our Chief Magistrate, the last link of connection between Great Britain, and the Province would be severed. What interest, what advantage would remain to her in the connection? She has given up the right of appointment to Provincial offices—the disposal of the Crown Lands—the regulation of Commerce—the control of the Post Office;—what would then remain to her but the privilege of paying our troops? And how long would she do that, without even the show of authority in the government? Not long. Is then the thraldom of having our Governor appointed at Home so grievous, so unbearable—that the people of Canada would sever the connection to get quit of it? Is it so intolerable an evil to have a chief officer who cannot do one act without the advice and consent of counsellors we select for him—that we are prepared to spurn the three or four hundred thousand pounds of profit reaped annually from the connection, and to tax ourselves two or three hundred thousands more for the maintenance of Military, Naval and diplomatic establishments? Are the people prepared to pay five or six hundred thousand pounds a-year for the pure enjoyment of choosing a Governor, with power so limited?
There are people innocent enough to think that Great Britain would surrender the appointment of the Governor General and yet continue all the other advantages to us which we now enjoy—but these are few in number. The Elective-Governor-men are almost entirely Annexationists, and use it as a wedge to bring the Province, if possible, into collision with the Imperial Government. But let us suppose that Great Britain did consent to it—gave us the free choice of the Head of the Government and still extended to us the costly protection she does now. What are we to gain by it? Under our present system, the Governor General as a branch of the Legislature, does not exercise an individual criticism on every measure presented to him—he has no responsibility as a politician—he stands above the contentions of party—and yields to the views of either party obtaining a majority in the popular branch by the suffrages of the people. Under our present system, a veto by the head of the Government is unknown. Suppose a highly popular measure, the result of years’ exertion, to pass through the lower and upper house amid the acclamations of the dominant party in the country—what would the people of Canada say if, when the Bill was presented to the Governor General for his assent, he were to refuse it, because he did not approve of it! Would it not raise a storm of indignation from one end of the land to the other, that one man should thus resist the wishes of the whole people? Undoubtedly it would.
Now what is the improvement to be wrought on this state of things by the principle of popular election? The head of the Government from a non-political personage, carrying out the wishes of the people—is to become an independent power, elected by a party, to carry out the views of his party, and to exercise without restraint full authority as a branch of the Legislature. Of course, candidates for the Governor-Generalship would “run” and be elected on certain avowed principles, under the same responsibilities which members of Parliament now assume, and liable to be assailed and convicted of “treason,” and “treachery,” and all sorts of things, if they did not carry out in their office what their partizans expected of them. Well, we shall say that a Tory, or a Liberal, or a Clear-Grit Governor General is elected under these responsibilities, and that it so happens that there is a majority in the two houses of opposite politics. The one man power must in such case to his duty to his political friends, and veto every measure presented to him by the people’s representatives! And how shall checks be placed on an elective Chief Officer? Are we to give him unrestricted power of appointment to office, unrestricted liberty in the expenditure of the public moneys?—or shall we make him find conscience-keepers from the majority of the two other branches? Imagine an elected high-Tory Governor—the leader of the high-Tory party, and elected as such—calling to his Council, as his confidential advisers, Caleb Hopkins, Peter Perry, and Henry John Boulton! The thing is nonsense. At present, the Governor General is the constitutional administrator of public affairs, according to the wishes of the people, as expressed by majorities of two large public bodies. We can bring public opinion to bear on his actions, readily and certainly; but by the new system we would make for ourselves a master who would rule as he chose during his term of office. The President of the United States is a despot during his official term, in comparison with the Queen of England—his power is enormous, and as a political partisan he uses it unblushingly for party purposes. The idea of exchanging a British Vice-Roy, working a representative Constitution for a republican President—and that under the plea of progression and extending popular power—is simply absurd.—For our own parts, we have no notion of losing the substance in running after the shadow. We deem the connection with Great Britain of the very highest advantage to Canada, and we would oppose any change which would seriously affect its permanence. But were the connection cut to-morrow, we could fancy no greater difficulty than to devise a plan for providing a chief ruler, as likely to secure able high-minded incumbents, with as little power to do harm and under such wise restraints, as at present. We have now all the advantages of a hereditary monarchy without the disadvantages.
The second point was that of an elective Upper House; and we admit at once that were it possible to work the constitution with two elective branches we would prefer it to the existing system. But we cannot see how this can be done. Shall the members of both Houses be elected for the same terms and from the same electoral districts? If so, there is no use for two houses, for men of the same stamp will sit and rule in both. Shall the term of office for the Upper House be longer than that of the Lower, and the districts different? If so, from the every varying tide of popular feeling in Upper Canada, the majority in the two houses will almost invariably be of opposing politics. When such an event happened, legislation would be at a stand, and ministerial responsibility would be at an end,—for no ministry could have a majority in a Tory House and in a Radical house at the same moment.
The fact is than an elective Governor General and an elective second branch are quite impracticable under the British constitutional system of Ministerial responsibility; the question becomes simply a choice between the British form and that of American republicanism. There seems to be no halfway house. If we break through the principle of Ministerial responsibility, we destroy the mainspring of the British system, and must have a written constitution defining the utmost limit permitted to the several arms of the Government; we must have a supreme law court as the final arbiter of all questions, and not parliament; the responsibility of a whole Ministry must be replaced by the responsibility of one man; the heads of departments must no longer have seats in the Legislature, but be the chief clerks of the President, and be selected and removed at his sole will and pleasure. The proposal demands an entire revolution in our constitutional system of government, and one, in our opinion, very much for the worse. One of the fruits certain to be produced by it, would be the introduction of the system of removing all government officials at every change of party.
If the Upper House as now constituted were the evil it is represented to be, a much better remedy in our opinion would be to abolish it and increase the representative branch. But we are far from viewing it as an evil—we think the circumstances of the country have been against it, but that it is every year becoming more influential, and that with our advancement in education and wealth it will obtain the importance which it ought to command. From the youth of the country, it was in past years most difficult to obtain men of education, wealth and political standing to call to the Senate—and those in power in former years were not over anxious to find such. But of late there has been a great change, and among the Legislative Councillors are now found many of the most talented men in the country. Notwithstanding their sneers, we doubt whether the Lower House can compare with the Upper House in talent—difference in numbers considered. It is strange the objection urged against the Legislative Council;—that they echo the Lower House, that they offer no obstruction to measures matured in the popular branch! Had the Upper House been found obstructive, from its Conservative constitution, we would not have been surprised at a Radical clamor against it—but to complain that they don’t kick out Bills is a curious idea. The Tories are the only parties who really have a good complaint against the Legislative Council, for they naturally expected aid from a permanent body; but one good cause of grumbling from Liberals we know not and hear not. Many admirable suggestions emanate from the Upper House in the maturing of Bills, and if the members would but attend more closely, speechify a little more, and not allow the originating of the leading Bills to be engrossed by the Lower House, we think they would soon occupy the position in public estimation which would be desirable. It would, we think, be difficult to erect a branch of the Legislature designed to correct rash legislation in the Lower House, so free from practical evils as the present.
The third and last branch of the elective Institutions sought for is that of office-holders. The patronage of the Crown, administered by advice of the Ministry, in this Province, embraces:—
1st.—The Clerks in the Several Government Departments.
2nd.—The Custom House officers.
3rd.—The Post Office officials.
4th.—The Judicial appointments.
5th.—The employees of the Crown Lands and Board of Works.
6th.—The County officers.
A few months ago we heard people advocating the elective principle for all these—from “top to bottom.” Of late, however, the thing has assumed a more rational shape, and with the exception of a few very extreme men, we find the 6th class embraces the utmost demand of the elective men; and indeed even in the United States the head of the government has the entire patronage of all offices but those included under that head. Nay, the Clear Grit organ of yesterday expresses itself not only as confining its demands to class 6 but is not even willing to trust these to popular election—not he—the patronage is merely to be transferred from the general government to the municipal government! The said county offices on which so much stress is laid, therefore, are merely the shrievalty—the Clerkship of the Peace—the Registrarship—and the Inspectorship of Licenses. We think it a mere matter of expediency whether the Government or the County Councils should hold the patronage of these offices and not worth a fiftieth part of the agitation that has been expended upon it. The Shrievalty and Clerkship of the Peace, as pertaining to the administration of Justice, would, we think, be best vested with those dispensing the patronage of that department. It would be an awkward dilemma if a law-court functionary could resist the mandate of the Government. But what is desired by the change? Are better men expected to be appointed than at present? Not a bit of it—a little troublesome patronage will be taken from one set of men and given to another set of men!—that is the whole matter. The people are really not a whit interested in the matter—only those who are looking for such offices.
But amid the consideration of all these topics, in inquiring how these changes could be worked, the question ever presents itself. What is the object of it all? What gain is to be derived from it? Hardly is British constitutional government established, and good fruit begun to be reaped, ere those who battled twenty years to obtain it are asked, without even giving it a fair trial, to cast it aside, and adopt a theoretical fabric without an argument in its favor but the craving for change. What do the people of Canada want, that they do not obtain now?—what can they want hereafter that our representative form of government does not provide a means of accomplishing? Sections of the people do undoubtedly desire ends that they cannot arrive at—but these are minorities who must submit under any form of government, until they can win over a sufficient number of votes to their views.