“The Upper House”, The Globe (26 October 1864)

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Date: 1864-10-26
By: The Globe
Citation: “The Upper House”, The Globe [Toronto] (26 October 1864).
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In debating the questions which have been raised by the decision of the Convention now sitting in Quebec, in favour of having our Upper House nominated by the Crown, arguments have been advanced by some of our contemporaries which, we think, if they prove anything at all, prove not that an elective is better than an appointed Council, but that a second chamber is not only useless but injurious in its tendencies.

The chief objections they take to the Crown-made Council is that it is opposed to the spirit of our institutions. We are a democratic people. Practically, we are all equal. We have, it is true, different classes in our society, but the highest is not far removed about the lowest. The lords of the Upper House in England are the representatives of the aristocracy, the guardians of their hereditary rights and privileges. Their great wealth, the educational advantages they possess— which make them, as a body, superior to any other class in the nation— their family connections, the fact that a very large number of commoners feel their relationship with them to be a matter of pride, and therefore combine to maintain their authority, the fact, also, that a large proportion of the lower classes look up to a lord with a sort of mysterious awe; all these things conspire to render their position tenable, and the perpetuation of their power perhaps desirable. But in Canada, in British North America, how differently are we situated. Here, the words “landed interest” are all but synonymous with the interests of all classes and conditions of our population. We cannot point to any special class as lords of the soil, to any which has hereditary claims to nobility or to respect, any which has in the slightest degree those claims to superiority over the rest of the community accorded by he common consent of the British people to their aristocracy. Wherefore then, it is asked, should we stultifying ourselves by picking out seventy-six men, having neither wealth, birth, education, nor influence which can entitle them to be set above the rest of their fellow subjects, elevate them into a position of superiority, and bind ourselves to do them reverence, when in reality we shall be able to feel no more reverence for them than for any other respectable seventy-six. They are of us, we know them, and should have no more reluctance in kicking them, should necessity arise, than a simple M.P.P. There is no class which they can represent, or on whose behalf they would venture to speak; why, then, give to them privileges denied to other men.

Put in this way the argument against a Crown nominated Upper House seems strong. We take leave, however, to say that it proceeds upon a mistaken assumption, and proves too much. It is quite true that we have not in British North America aristocracy, or any distinct class which can claim for its benefit, or for which it is desirable to institute an Upper Chamber. If, in order to prove the necessity for a second house, it is necessary to show the existence of an aristocracy, then the default is as fatal to an elective as to a nominated Council. We have not in this connection to ask what is the best mode of constituting such a House, because the reason put forward for creating one at all does not exist. Why have elective in preference to appointed “lords,” when there is no necessity for either, no particular class to represent, no peculiar interests of which they can be the guardians.

But though by this mode of argument we meet the objection raised from one point of view, we do not get to the root of the matter. The Legislative Council was not created under the idea that similar reasons existed here to demand its institution, as exist in England to perpetuate the House of Lords. It was seen that at home, the peers of the nation being necessarily conservative, having their privileges to guard, having individually vast interests at stake, were exceedingly cautious what countenance they gave to any change in the institutions of [text ineligible] not erected into a separate legislative body for the specific purpose of exercising a conservative influence; it is an incident of their position that they do so, a natural outgrowth, a logical result. Recognizing this fact, it was thought desirable to erect a second house in Canada, for the purpose of checking what is called “hasty legislation.” It has ever been argued by the advocates of this theory, that in time of popular excitement there was great danger that the Lower House, yielding to outside pressure, would pass measures which the judgement of members did not approve that for the sake of a title temporary popularity they would peril the interest of the state. Therefore it was said that a second house should be created, the members whereof should have a larger term of office than those in the “popular” branch, and, moreover, that it should not be liable to dissolution by the Crown. This amenable to the people, depending for popularity rather upon the general excellence of its deeds than upon an ability to chime in with the impulse of the moment, would guard the permanent welfare of the country, and check the hurried partizan legislation of their democratic “inferiors.” All who know anything of our past political history will endorse our statement, when we say that this was he reason for which it was thought well to erect and to perpetuate a Legislative Council.

Before going any further we would say, for our own part, that we have always had serious doubts as to the validity of the argument, which we here state but do not urge. We can understand how in England, where there is a privileged class, it should be esteemed desirable to have a house with power to check, if only for a short time, the popular branch. There is an inevitable tendency in all countries, where one part of the community enjoy privileges and advantages denied to the rest, to lay at the door of the upper classes all the evils to which the body politic as heir. For instance, if some writers are to be believed, had the Irish people possessed a local parliament on the British model, they would have upset their aristocracy a few years ago, because the potatoes rotted and left them without food. But in Canada the potatoes might rot, and the harvest fail a dozen times over, and yet no single voice would be raised to attack class privileges, because they have no existence. We lack the reason which, in Great Britain and European countries, is likely to produce “party legislation,” and therefore we doubt the wisdom of raising up a barrier to prevent an irruption from waters which are nowhere to be found. This en passant.

It being acknowledged that the object of a legislative council is to check party legislation, we come to ask how it is that the believers in this necessity find fault with the decision of the Conference. It then appears that they prefer an elective council to one nominated, because they think it incapable of doing the work for which they would set it up. In fact, the smaller its ability to check the lower house the better it pleases them. An elective upper chamber, they say, will generally be the reflex of the popular will, an elaborate registry office of the deeds of the “popular branch.” The English aristocracy, they say, being far above the people, may differ with those below them. But what is, what can there be, in the  elective lords of our county to cause it to be supposed that they will feel differently to the masses of our fellow subjects? What barrier is there to prevent their minds being impressed with the same arguments, the same prejudices, as those which influence other men? And what reason is there to suppose that questions can arise in a community such as ours, particular views of which, after having triumphed over party opposition, after having got a majority of the people on their side, after having obtained the control of the lower house, would not also find in the upper their advocates in greater strength than their opponents? it is almost impossible that an elective council should be aught else than the most obedient servant of the lower house. True, the members might take a stand, turn obstinate, and block legislation; but we are protected against that by the salutary fear they have of being swept out of existence. That, in itself, is sufficient to make them pliable and subservient.

Well, all this may be perfectly true; it is not our present purpose to question it. We have merely urge that if it be necessary to have machinery to check the lower house, something better than an elective council should be provided, because such a council, according to the showing of its friends, is no check at all.

But we shall be told, the conference has given us a King Stork. Far better to have merely a log for our upper house, than a tyrant beyond our control. What— and have no check, run all those horrible dangers so often spoken of from hasty legislation! It must be recollected, however, that the chief arguments used to prove that an elective upper house will generally be in accord with the popular will, are good also in the case of a nominated chamber. When a man is made an M.L.C., it does not lift him out of the sphere in which he previously lived; it does not cut him off from all sympathy with his fellowmen; it does not remove him from the influences which form the opinions of the masses. True, if he be nominated for life, he will not have to court popular favour by expressing views in which he may not believe, necessary to secure his election. But then, in exercising his own judgment, he will be only doing that which those apprehensive of hasty legislation would have him to do. And again, if fear of a violent death has kept the elective Legislative Council within the bounds of moderation, how much more likely is it to influence one nominated by the Crown? The elective member of the Legislative Council can claim to hold his seat by the will of the people; but the Crown made lord will not be able to appeal to any such powerful title. He will feel his term to be much more slippery, and it is to be hoped would behave himself accordingly.

While thus we do not feel called upon to applaud the decision of the Conference, we do not feel called upon, as do some of our contemporaries, to be frightened at the prospect before us.

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