There’s never been a Canadian Parliament quite like our 35th, convened after the election upheaval of 1993. The governing Progressive Conservatives had been reduced to two seats in the House of Commons, the NDP had just nine MPs and the opposition was dominated by two new regional parties – the Bloc Québécois and the western Reform Party.
Jean Chrétien’s majority Liberals were unchallenged masters of the Commons. They encountered only token resistance as they pushed through a series of initiatives born of partisan hubris and vindictiveness, threatening to abuse legal, parliamentary and constitutional norms.
The worst excesses of the Chrétien juggernaut were stopped in the Senate by the Progressive Conservatives, who held a majority and later a plurality of seats in the 1994-97 Parliament. The hero of the piece was their new opposition leader, Montreal’s John Lynch-Staunton, who died at 82 last month, largely unrecognized off the Hill for a brave and skillful parliamentary achievement that prevented the government from successfully indulging some of its worst instincts and preserved important elements of Canadian democracy.
Mr. Lynch-Staunton was in a delicate position. His party had been massively rejected by the electorate in October of 1993. Some members of his Tory caucus were demoralized and reluctant to challenge a new government. Others were bent on settling scores with their Liberal tormentors in the Senate who had routinely delayed or obstructed the Mulroney government’s agenda.
A veteran municipal official in Montreal and well-schooled in Canadian parliamentary history and tradition, Mr. Lynch-Staunton was a strong respecter of the democratic legitimacy of the House and generally insisted that, while the Senate has a duty of due diligence on all matters referred to it, the elected MPs must have the last word.
There would be two exceptions, and he chose them carefully: divisive and controversial proposals for which the government clearly had no electoral mandate; and initiatives that would violate the rule of law or constitutional and parliamentary conventions.
Twice under his leadership, the Senate blocked Commons bills by which the Chrétien Liberals sought to manipulate the non-partisan redistribution process for the sole purpose of advancing their party’s interests.
A bill to cancel the previous government’s contract for redevelopment of Pearson International Airport while denying access to the courts by disadvantaged parties was defeated by the PCs with the help of two Liberal senators. Witnesses before a Senate committee had testified that the bill violated the rule of law, the 1960 Bill of Rights, the 1982 Charter and three international agreements to which Canada is party.
The Tory opposition could not prevent the government from shutting down the judicial inquiry into the Canadian military’s crimes and cover-up in Somalia, but the Senate could and did launch its own special committee – although this was aborted when Mr. Chrétien called an election in 1997.
The Senate also failed in its attempt to amend the most drastic and punitive unemployment insurance reforms seen to that date or since. But Mr. Lynch-Staunton had the satisfaction of seeing the Liberals wiped out in Nova Scotia and badly defeated elsewhere in Atlantic Canada in the 1997 election, partly as a result of the Senate’s sustained examination of the bill’s impact on the most vulnerable seasonal and part-time workers, especially women.
Mr. Lynch-Staunton’s leadership during those years was a brilliant parliamentary balancing act. The government lacked effective opposition in the Commons; still, the Senate could not overplay its hand. Never a narrow partisan (he had earlier been a Liberal and a John Turner delegate at their 1968 leadership convention), Mr. Lynch-Staunton knew how to pick his battles, always choosing the ground where he would defend democratic principles and parliamentary traditions.
Repeated acclamations by his PC colleagues kept him in office as opposition leader until 2004, when retirement loomed and he stepped aside. His Liberal colleagues warmed to his conviviality and integrity. He proved unfailingly to be a man of his word in any cross-party negotiation.
John Lynch-Staunton’s high-road leadership of a Senate majority in opposition to an elected majority government in the Commons is a model for students of Parliament – and for future reference when history repeats itself.
Lowell Murray was a Progressive Conservative senator for 32 years (from 1979 to 2011) and was PC government leader there from 1986 to 1993.